Biopic sees medieval nun as thoroughly modern heroine

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen)

on October 15, 2010 by John P. McCarthy

It should come as no surprise that a 12th-century German nun could inspire a contemporary filmmaker, particularly when the director is feminist trailblazer Margarethe von Trotta and the sister is charismatic polymath Hildegard von Bingen. Cast von Trotta's frequent collaborator Barbara Sukowa in the role and you have a piece made in celluloid heaven. Hildegard's musical compositions and mystical writings, plus the lush film's authentic settings, provide ample adornment and atmosphere for this complex portrait. And although its claims about Hildegard's modernity and relevancy should be taken with a grain of salt, one readily imagines Vision attracting a cross-section of the curious, not limited to feminist cinephiles and true believers.

Gifted to the Benedictine convent of St. Disibod by her noble parents at the age of eight ("You are now His little bride."), Hildegard (1098-1179) was raised by Sister Jutta von Sponheim along with another nun-to-be named Jutta. After showing a few incidents in their young lives, most notably a lesson contrasting the ugliness of envy with the power of love, von Trotta fast-forwards thirty years to their mentor's death. Hildegard is selected to take over as Magistra of the convent, but not before standing up to the Abbot and insisting her fellow nuns vote her in.

Sickly and frail, Hildegard's body may be weak, but her iron spirit more than compensates. She studies the natural world and advocates the healing properties of both herbs and music. One day, she confides in Brother Volmar (Heino Ferch) that she's had visions all her life and a seer is born. After much to-and-fro with the local hierarchy (including the Abbot with whom she butts heads throughout), Hildegard writes to Bernard of Clairvaux who intercedes with the Pope so she can be authorized to speak in public and allowed to publish the content of her visions. Volmar becomes her most loyal friend and unwavering ally, undertaking the job of transcribing her visions and contemplations.

Soon, Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), the 16 year old daughter of a noblewoman, arrives at the convent. A precocious brunette with piercing blue eyes, Richardis is infatuated with Hildegard and the feeling is mutual. She takes the veil and becomes Hildegard's secretary. Meanwhile, another young nun in the community gets pregnant, which contributes to Hildegard's decision to petition for the right to establish her own convent near the Rhine. This leads to dissension within the sisterhood, and much grappling over money and land. The emotional climax of Vision involves an interpersonal schism.

In von Trotta's eyes, Hildegard is an iconoclast who chafes against ecclesiastical authority when it impedes her goals - but she never breaks her vows. Her fame and celebrity status give her much more leeway than most male clerics of the period. Von Trotta never pretends to circumscribe her or offer a definitive biography. Hildegard emerges as tireless and multifaceted - a contemplative character, always in motion, armed with a full range of moods and a powerful intellect. She's a New Age matron, championing holistic medicine and women's rights; she's a playwright, teacher and musician empowered by the certainty she has an open channel to God. She refers to her visions as the "living light" and, wisely, von Trotta refrains from trying to depict them in too much detail.

In Vision, a cloistered existence is the opposite of a dull and dreary retreat from the real world. Here, it's a positive, life-affirming choice available only to the best educated and, hence, the richest (albeit never for the eldest children). Alex Block's energetic cinematography, which makes fantastic use of candle and torch light, goes a long way toward highlighting this dynamism, as does Sukowa's intense performance. Furthermore, the degree to which the aristocracy and religious orders are intertwined has major political and religious implications, influencing worldly power relations and making suggestions about the meaning of obedience in the era.

Vision argues that the physical and the spiritual are intimately bound up. No doubt, von Trotta takes liberties in this regard, imposing a contemporary perspective on monastic life. Nonetheless, it feels authentic - once you get over your puritanical surprise at seeing the characters kiss on the lips. It also fits with the goal of dramatizing the raw emotions and suffering Hildegard experienced.

Those viewers seeking to be scandalized will likley complain that von Trotta's Vision downplays the religious ecstasy; in other words, that the director doesn't delve deeply enough into Hildegard's faith. For all this sister's relevancy and potential to be a modern, secular role model - combined with von Trotta's reluctance to portray her as saintly in any conventional sense - there's no getting around the fact Hildegard was driven by religious ardor. Ultimately, it's not possible to sidestep or bracket her religious beliefs, and so how one views her hinges on, and is limited by, one's own faith - or lack thereof.

Distributor: Zeitgeist
Cast: Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung, Lena Stolze, Sunnyi Melles, Paula Kalenberg and Mareile Blendl
Director/Screenwriter: Margarethe von Trotta
Producer: Markus Zimmer
Genre: Biography/Drama/History; German-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 111 min
Release date: October 13 NY


Tags: Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung, Lena Stolze, Sunnyi Melles, Paula Kalenberg, Mareile Blendl, Margarethe von Trotta, Markus Zimmer

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