Dutch Film Spiced With Wit, Whimsy

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XXX "Antonia's Line," with Willeke Van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Elsie De Brauw, Mil Seghers. Directed and written by Marleen Gorris. In Dutch with English subtitles. Harvard Exit. Not rated; contains mature themes, some nudity. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Winner of several awards, including best picture at the Toronto Film Festival, "Antonia's Line" is a Dutch treat that unfolds like a generous novel, surrounding you with its indelible sense of time, place and character.

Likely to fit comfortably on a double-bill with "Like Water for Chocolate," it's been described by writer-director Marleen Gorris as "a family chronicle that deals with birth, death, love, hatred, childhood and the flowering of each new generation."

Which is to say, "Antonia's Line" is concerned with the cycles of life and the constant process of death and renewal. Further described by Gorris as "a fairy tale," it is also a film by, for and about women "who are thoroughly themselves and not defined by their roles as wife, mother or daughter."

A feminist filmmaker whose work (including the provocative 1982 drama "A Question of Silence") has been scathingly critical of male-dominated society, Gorris mellows her stance here while maintaining its essence. Men are relegated to secondary importance in "Antonia's Line," but the film isn't so much interested in sexual politics as it is in simply celebrating the strength, wisdom and compassion that binds women together.

In a present-day prologue, 88-year-old Antonia (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) accepts her imminent death with the calm of someone whose life has been richly rewarding. The film then flashes back to the days just following the end of World War II, when Antonia returned to her native village with her 16-year-old daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans).

As it proceeds to span some 40 years, the film takes a casually episodic approach to the introduction of Antonia's "line," an adopted family of eccentrics. They include the melancholy village recluse, who will later discuss Plato with Antonia's precocious granddaughter; a Catholic woman who bays at the moon while hopelessly pining for her Protestant neighbor; and a farmer's retarded daughter who marries the lanky village simpleton.

There are crises, of course, including a pair of rapes that are eventually avenged. But "Antonia's Line" remains a study of peace and goodwill, and reaches one of several comedic peaks when Danielle decides she wants a child but not a husband. When asked if she "saw stars" after mating with a volunteer father, Danielle simply responds, "Did I have to?"

In the artistic Danielle, Gorris has also found an outlet for moments of magic realism, when various statues and sculptures spring briefly to life, blessing the film with a peculiar kind of whimsy. Shaped by the seasons and brimming with compassion, "Antonia's Line" is the kind of fairy tale that hints at a better way of living in an unpredictable world.