Antonia’s Line is not a magical movie in the traditional sense, but from the opening it suggests the Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy), an old but healthy and strong old woman, is gifted with the perception of a mystic. Not only does she know when her last day on earth has come but she also chose it.
From here begins a Dutch take on the premise of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, in which an old person is aware that they have reached the end of their road and commit to enjoying their last day. There’s a valuable lesson here for all of us since so many of us live life as if it were a never ending wheel.
But Marleen Gorris’s Antonia’s Line is set in a different world, which is largely populated and concerned with women. So exclusive do females appear to be in the film that Antonia’s Line borders on the level of fantasy. The first man even mentioned, Antonia’s father, has been dead for thirty years, but not before driving his wife mad and, ultimately, to her death. This is where Antonia’s retrospective flashback of her life begins. Shortly after the war, she returns to her family’s farm and takes over the property with her young daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans).
As a woman Antonia fought her way through hard times and so did her mother. Now, Antonia must pass on the will to her Danielle, who is pretty but unmarried. An outspoken feminist, Marleen Gorris makes her ultimate salute to independent women with Antonia’s Line.
All of the men here are caricatures of a comical nature, but the tip of Gorris’s tongue always touches her check. Even the most sympathetic male figures like Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), the bookish intellect, and Looney Lips, are congenially chided. Bu everyone in this movie is given a nickname, and often not very flattering ones (Retarded Deedee is the most egregious example). Antonia’s village is a storybook land with human-like characters.
But the magic in Antonia’s Line is purely imagined. Nonetheless, it is sort of creepy in the great European tradition. The corpse of Antonia’s mother comes to life during her eulogy as does the figure of Christ looming over her coffin. But this is all in Danielle’s head and we’ll soon learn what is tormenting her.
A reference to the Holocaust is one of the few encroachments of reality. But this is a fleeting reference as is the movie’s first introduction to brutality, a rape scene that ends darkly comically.
Antonia’s Line is consistently interesting due to the peculiarity of its people and place. It is an ingeniously crafted piece of fascination. It is not a great movie not because of the episodic structure of the movie, which is the only way to tell the story of generations spanning forty years. Rather, it is done in because the thread holding the episodes becomes invisible. Still, the exuberance and sheer beauty of the clothing on the line is enough to fall in love with.
The emotional turn comes when we discover the root of Danielle’s ambition. She wants to have a baby without a man. A jump to a church procession after she discloses her desire is indicative of the scandal this will bring to the pious village. The church has a domineering presence in town, but Danielle uses its own figures to her favor. During a sermon she glances up at the Virgin Mary. Could announcing her baby as a form of Immaculate Conception work among the people of the town? Maybe, but her next move is into a lesbian relationship and she will not be able to explain that one so easily.
This isn’t a town tolerant of change and exceptions to the rule. Danielle has her baby, who grows into a brilliant young girl. But a gifted child is considered a problem in this suggestive village, but the seeds of change start with her. Danielle herself becomes a young grandmother when her daughter grows and gives birth to her own child, passing on to her Antonia’s legacy.
Antonia’s Line is a whimsical tale and charmingly so. Still, it acknowledges the hardships of life. “The world is a hell,” opines Crooked Finger. But his statement is juxtapositioned with a lovely shot of a crisp autumn forest. Antonia’s Line does not hesitate to drop dark stains of reality in its pretty tissue of fantasy. In this sense, it is much like life. The village is always prepared for death, but in love with life.