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Talking Pictures

Theologian Patricia Reilly digs the fem farm in 'Antonia's Line'

By David Templeton


Petaluma writer David Templeton takes interesting people to see interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This week, he takes Patricia Lynn Reilly, the iconoclastic "woman-centered" theologian and author of A God Who Looks Like Me, to see the fascinating, Oscar-winning feminist epic Antonia's Line.

It is noontime in Berkeley. I am standing beneath the overhanging marquee of a multiplex, waiting for author Patricia Lynn Reilly, with whom I will be seeing Antonia's Line, the little film from the Netherlands that was just awarded an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I have been studying a poster on which is the image of a bound and gagged Cher, strapped to a wooden seat; her husband wants her dead, the caption reads, and she falls in love with the hit man. It's a comedy.

I suddenly get that feeling people get when someone is watching them.

Glancing over my shoulder, I see Patricia Lynn Reilly, standing on the sidewalk, smiling at me. "David," she announces, matter-of-factly, though we have not previously met. We (I affirm that I am he, she confirms that she is she) then peer up at the poster I've been studying. "It's a comedy," I inform her. "Hmmmm," she replies, and we proceed into the theater.

Reilly is a theologian whose work with the concepts of the "Divine Feminine" have created a nice little stir among members of the traditional worldwide theological community. Her sensation-causing book, A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering a Woman-Affirming Spirituality (Ballantine, 1995; just released as a trade paperback) is a compassionate exploration of the psychological and emotional limitations that many women have experienced as a result of being told that God is a man. These women's stories, along with uplifting rituals and myths that Reilly has developed through the years, are presented here as a step-by-step "re-imagining" of religion; a compelling demonstration of practical spirituality, specifically focusing on the image of a creator with a woman's face.

Antonia's Line is a gentle epic told from a woman's point of view. Beginning on what is explained as the last day of Antonia's life, the story flashes back to the late 1940s, as Antonia and her daughter, Danielle, arrive in a small village, where they open up their home and lives as a kind of feminist alternative to the town's patriarchal traditions. Love, in various forms, is allowed to bloom, and the tale continues, tracing the daughter-to-daughter birth line of Antonia's spirited descendants as they experience the alternating tragedy and exultation of life.

"I love that movie," Reilly tells me afterward as we settle into a coffee shop next door. "In a sense, Antonia is . . . " She pauses, then produces a small booklet, which she lays on the table before me. "I don't usually show this to interviewers," she confides, "but I impulsively picked it up as I walked out the door, and watching the movie again, I understood why." She has given me the text of a five-part, call-and-response group ritual, the same one that Reilly's been performing in bookstores and churches across the country. As I flip through it, it is striking how much it parallels the themes of the film.

She points out the title of the first portion: The Mother of All Living. Other symbols follow, from the Divine Girl Child through to the Wise Old Woman.

"Antonia," Reilly continues, "is, in a sense, the Mother of All Living. There were no religious rituals in the churches and synagogues of our childhood that celebrated the birthing powers of women. The world was brought into being by a male god. When our earliest ancestors got together to try and figure out where we came from, they didn't say that a male god brought the world into being by a series of verbal commands--that was a much later mythology. They said, 'It must have been the Big Mama.'"

So Antonia is the Big Mama?

"Yes," Reilly laughs. "She's the strong mother who protects, who isn't the stereotypical mother who only nurtures and holds life. She also protects life, is an advocate for life. All the way through the movie she's the one who, by the power of her presence, drew the injured ones to her, and through her acceptance and love, they just radiated with essence of who they were, as children of life.

"It was such a stunning contrast to the Father God, shown through the priest and the church, out of synch with the organic rhythms and cycles of life and the Earth."

Among the adversities that these women endure is the presence in the village of a rapist, who first assaults his own sister before turning on a member of Antonia's family. I mention that these scenes disturbed me, as on-screen rapes often do, and I question whether this subplot might have been left out. Reilly feels it belonged in the movie.

"There's no way you can create a book or a movie or an experience that is focused on women's lives without acknowledging our vulnerability to sexual violence," she states bluntly. "There's no way that it couldn't be included."

As for it making me uncomfortable, she laughs softly. "Oh, well, of course." "The reality of a woman's life is uncomfortable. In a society that worships a male god, we are vulnerable. 'Boys will be boys,' we are told. 'You mustn't arouse them.' The threat is everywhere." I think back to the poster outside the theater: a lighthearted comedy about spousal abuse.

"If you posit an exclusively male God," she continues, "then that image of the Divine will affect which stories are told, and which stories are not told."

She smiles. "When we bring in the Divine Feminine, with stories like Antonia's, we bring balance, and with balance we all have greater access to our wholeness."

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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