Written and Directed by Marleen Gorris
Starring Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans and Jan Decleir
The Netherlands, immediately post-WWII. The widow Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns with her daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), to her hometown to see about her dying mother, who in fact dies within minutes of Antonia’s arrival. Afterwards, with her mother’s house now empty, Antonia moves in, then never leaves. Over the following years Antonia puts down roots in the town, collecting a variety of hard-luck-cases into her orbit, who she protects as if they were her children, and also catches the eye of a widower, Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir). After some time, she and the Farmer Bas take up together. Amidst this she helps Danielle in her quest to have her own child, then helps raise that child, and even helps to raise her great-granddaughter as well. Along the way the extended family endures the various ups and downs of life in the mid-to-late 20th century and, in the end, Antonia dies happy, surrounded by family.
Tell Me More
Antonia’s Line is a generation-spanning story, covering roughly 40-odd years of post-war life in the Netherlands. But, don’t mistake and think this story is another Forrest Gump or Zelig, where somehow the normal people in the story can’t not bump into capital-H History. Rather, Antonia’s Line is something of the anti-Gump/Zelig, in that nobody here seems to bump into even so much as lower-case-h history. Moreover, while those other films have a decidedly-expansive view of the world – Forrest Gump literally spans the globe – Antonia’s Line barely seems to register the outside world at all. In it’s way Antonia’s Line is far more realistic in it’s fantastical elements – we’ll get to those – and reflects a realist view of the world in that the reality for most of us is while we all live in important historical times, very few of us actually have any sort of relationship with that history.
Also more realistic is that Antonia’s Line does not need any great encounters with history to find humor in the story. Rather, it’s humor is drawn more from everyday life. But while humorous, Antonia’s Line is not a comedy, full of slapstick or antics. Rather, it’s comic, but isn’t wedded to comedy as it’s way of being.
But, while it strives more for realism, it does embrace some of the more fantastical sides at work in some of the characters, particularly Danielle, who has several brief little moments of seeing unusual items come to life and interject into reality:
- During the funeral for her grandmother, both Jesus on a crucifix, and her grandmother, animate to comic effect
- After a priest gives a judgmental sermon, a statue of an angel comes to life and whacks him in the back of the head
- Later on, a statue of the Virgin Mary suddenly smiles
Of course, because it’s not a comedy, and has a more realistic bent, you shouldn’t be surprised the film does have a wistful edge and is not afraid to show the various tragedies and hardships of life:
- Not one, but two, different characters are raped, which leads to a man being stabbed with a pitchfork, only to later be beaten up by his brothers and drowned
- After a lifetime of being something like a wise-old-man of the village, that same wise man decides this world is not worth living in and hangs himself
- One character openly contemplates an abortion
- One comes to embrace her inner-lesbian
- Intellectualism and overblown religiosity are both mocked in various subtle, and unsubtle, ways
In all, if there is any sort of close analog to Antonia’s Line in English-speaking cinema it’s The World According To Garp. In that one the absurd mixes with the mundane to comic effect, all set against the backdrop of a strong-willed matriarch gathering a makeshift family around herself. And just as I quite enjoy Garp, I enjoyed Antonia’s Line: both made me laugh and both go down easy.
The Love Shed
Probably the funniest parts of the film are found in the relationship between Antonia and Farmer Bas, which eventually comes to a head when she decides she won’t marry him, but they can get together once a week for sex. Of course, with so many people living in each other’s houses – his sons, her makeshift family – she decides they can’t get together in either place, because there’s just too many people around.
Farmer Bas builds a shed out in some trees away from the house – it’s a very nice shed – just for the purposes of sex. There was something both sweet and genuinely funny in cutting directly from the scene where Antonia decides she’s going to give in to him, to the scene of him in his shirtsleeves building the shed.
Better than Best
Best Picture 1995 was won by Braveheart, over Apollo 13, Babe, Sense and Sensibility and Il Postino. At the time, my preference among the nominees was for Babe, and it probably still is. While it’s apparent now why Braveheart would win – it’s the sort of big, obvious Oscar-bait film the Academy has a soft spot for – I still think Babe is the more enjoyable film. Besides, Braveheart was seriously problematic in its portrayal of anybody not a white male, and it’s gotten even more problematic since then.
Amongst the films not nominated for Best Picture, The Usual Suspect is clearly the best, though I obviously also have a soft-spot for Toy Story and Nixon.
Though Antonia’s Line was not nominated for Best Picture, if it were somehow elevated from the Foreign Language Film ghetto and into the Best Picture race, I think a compelling argument can be made for it as better than all the films nominated. At least, it’s better than Braveheart, and when asking Better Than Best, that’s all that matters.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.