Antonia

AntoniaSynopsis: Winner of the 1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and many of the most prestigious international film honors, Antonia’s Line is an inspiring and uplifting masterpiece, as big hearted and full of life as the unforgettable character at its heart.

At the end of the Second World War, a spirited, independent woman returns to the place of her birth, a small village in the verdant Dutch countryside, to start a new life with her young daughter. Thus begins a remarkable portrait of a family and a community of mothers and daughters, and of one indomitable woman. Earthy, sexy, romantic, filled with laughter and warmth, it’s a joyous celebration of simple pleasures and enduring passions. Lived by Antonia and learned by all in her lineage, it’s a legacy of life and love that spans five generations.

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Antonia 8.0

eyelights: Antonia’s independent lifestyle. the feminist themes.
eyesores: the poor editing.

‘Antonia’ is a movie that I never would have considered if my partner had not been so eager to see this for her birthday. Until she mentioned it, it wasn’t even anywhere near my radar – I’m pretty sure that I had seen the DVD or VHS tape at some point (albeit under the title of ‘Antonia’s Line’), but I gave it no mind.

Like other art-house fare such as ‘I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing’, I saw the video cover and just wrote it off as some tepid drama that would be decent but not quite memorable – despite critical acclaim to the contrary (first impressions, eh?). I pretty much had to be coerced into this one.

Although I wasn’t. Not really.

When my partner described it to me as a feminist picture about a woman looking back upon her life, it seemed much more interesting suddenly. The fact that she was so excited at the prospect of seeing it again was also a major plus, given that she is not prone to watching movies more than once – and had already seen it twice before. That was a good sign.

It turns out that ‘Antonia’ is a memorable Dutch dramedy taking place in a small, isolated village. It is bookended by the final day in Antonia’s life, but takes place many years prior, starting when she first returns to the village with her daughter. From there we are privy to a multi-generational family album of sorts, featuring the many women in Antonia’s family.

Starting with her mother, a demented old crone who curses her husband on her death bed, we begin to see the lineage take shape. Antonia is a product of a clearly dysfunctional home disrupted by an (apparently) abusive father – if the old woman is to believed that is (given how utterly insane she appears to be, it is difficult to ascertain).

As incarnated by Willeke van Ammelrooy, Antonia is a self-assured, no-nonsense woman who couldn’t be bothered with men aside from a few practical arrangements with the village folk. At one point, a suitor suggest that they marry and gives such pragmatic reasons as the fact that they are both widowers, and that his sons need a mother – to which she responds: “But I have no need for your sons.”

Pretty bold. Direct. I loved it.

While her daughter is a silent, mousey little woman who keeps to herself, Antonia’s influence is nonetheless felt when she decides that she wants to have a child but doesn’t want a man in her life. Antonia then decides to take her daughter to town to get pregnant, finding her a virile lover in the hope of rendering her pregnant. It works marvellously.

Antonia’s granddaughter is also an unusual find: even in her earliest years, she began to grasp mathematics and philosophical concepts that most adults couldn’t – she could even keep up with the village savant. With his help, she would bloom into a genius that composed her own classical works by her teen years.

I adored that all of these women were made from a different mould; they are hardly conventional cinematic models.

And then there is the great-granddaughter. She is a freakish little girl who sits there and stares a lot. She had very little charisma, and no outstanding feature either. The only quality she seemed to have (aside from her deep devotion to her grandmother and striking red hair) is an interest in writing. Will she stand out like the others? Perhaps one day. But not here and now.

Perhaps it was just a casting issue and another actress would have delivered something other than a googly-eyed, stunned performance. It wouldn’t surprise me because there were other casting issues (most notably the casting of Antonia’s granddaughter – who began a delicate flower of a girl, into square-jawed, slightly stout teen, into an average-looking young woman. Um…).

The film generally had difficulty showing the effect of time on its cast and characters through it all: aside from a couple of hairstyle changes, most of the cast were greyed out but not much else even though decades go by. That was an unfortunate weakness, because it kept me from buying into it; it didn’t look real, so it didn’t feel real.

There is also the matter of some tragically sloppy editing that marred the flow of the picture. There are countless examples of sequences that start and end abruptly, for no apparent reason, but the worst of them all was the introduction of a family tragedy 2/3 of the way in: Antonia tells us about it, we see shots of the participants, and then we see the outcome some time later.

In so doing, someone essentially neutered the emotional content of that shocking affair. It’s not that I find it necessary to show everything to get the point, but it was narrated to us casually, with no details and no indication of the impact and then we were expected to be involved emotionally in the act of vengeance that followed. Frankly, I just watched this completely detached.

My partner was surprised by the way the scene unfolded: she had originally seen ‘Antonia’  at a film festival and recalls complete sequences that are not there. While this could be a case of memory filling in the blanks (I have been known to do this as well), I know that many European films get cut on their way to our shores. This could very well be the case here. Unfortunately, I can’t find a reference to a longer version anywhere.

But, if it exists, I would love to see it.

You see, if not for these poor edits, if ‘Antonia’ flowed better (i.e. if it always connected the storytelling and emotional dots), it would be an even more potent motion picture. Already, as it stands, I think that it’s a marvellous, refreshing, life-affirming film – but it could have been a masterstroke by Marlene Gorris. Still, although it failed to meet its full potential, ‘Antonia’ is well worth knowing.

Date of viewing: December 7, 2012

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