Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In early 12th century Germany, Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine abbess, visionary, theologian, physician, botanist, poet, writer of liturgical songs and the author of the first surviving morality play. This amazing, intelligent woman was elected by her fellow nuns as magistra and she founded monasteries at Rupertsberg and Eibingen. Margarethe Von Trotta directs Barbara Sukowa, who plays this phenomenal lady of “Vision.”

I did not expect a biopic about a 12th century nun to be engrossing from beginning to end, but that is what “Vision” accomplishes, in both remarkable story and expert production. Von Trotta, an actress turned director, works magic with her mainly femme cast, especially Sukowa, who commands the screen with presence and makes Von Bingen an incredibly smart, resourceful, kind and compassionate woman. This at a time when men dominated, especially within the church, and women served.

Hildegard von Bingen turned her world around in many ways. When one of the nuns in her abbey gets pregnant (by one of the priests also living in the monastery), von Bingen demands that she be allowed to establish a nuns-only convent. Denied by her immediate superiors, she bumps it all the way to the top – the Pope. And, she won. Her impact on the Catholic world is multi-tiered and the helmer (who also wrote the screenplay) tells her story with deft care. Surprisingly, what von Bingen is known most for, her music, is given little shrift, except in the score. It does not hurt a thing, either.

All the tech aspects of “Vision” are outstanding. Gorgeous lighting and lensing by Axel Block, stunning production design (Heike Bauersfeld), art direction (Von Trotta), and brilliant costume design (Ursula Welter) all help make this a must see film for both history and film buffs. I learned about the life of an incredible and both eye and ear, with music by Christian Heyne and Hildegard von Bingen, What other 12th century composer can claim their music is relevant in the New Millennium? None that I can think of. I give it an A.

On the morning of the first day of the first Millennium, a young girl awoke amidst a group who hadn't expected to see the sun the next day.  She was brought by her parents to a Benedictine Abbot as a gift to God.  Thirty years later, the young girl had become a well respected nun who confided in her friend, the monk Volmar (Heino Ferch, "Downfall"), that since she was very young, God had spoken to her in "Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen."

Writer/director/art director Margarethe von Trotta ("Rosa Luxemburg," "Rosenstrasse") has made a film about a nun from the twelfth century that resonates today.  Politics and commercial considerations corrupt religion and women with only their faces and hands allowed to show are kept under the thumbs of men.  Until, that is, Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa, "Berlin Alexanderplatz," "Zentropa") not only makes a feminist stand but is blessed with the regard of Archbishops, Popes and Kings.  Thankfully von Trotta and her amazing star (the sixty year-old Sukowa convincingly ages from thirty-eight onwards) are not afraid to make their real life heroine deeply flawed, a decision which gives the film strong dramatic pull.

Young Hildegard is entrusted to the daughter of the Cloister's chief benefactor.  Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl) is a warm, maternal presence who pairs her with her namesake, but her preference for Hildegard soon becomes obvious, resulting in a lifetime's worth of envy, a vice von Sponheim teaches them is evil, for Jutta.  Thirty years later, when the older woman dies, Hildegard and Jutta (Lena Stolze, "The White Rose," "Rosenstrasse") are saddened to find her waist wrapped in barbed chains (self flagellation being common at the time, although, apparently a practice von Bingen was against).

Hildegard astonishes the Abbott (Alexander Held, "Downfall," "Sophie Scholl") for the first time when she rejects his decision that she assume Jutta's Magistra role.  She insists that her frequent illnesses make her unsuitable and says she will only agree if her fellow nuns vote her in.  They do.  Once Volmar brings a transcription of her visions to the Abbott, things take a highly political turn, but Hildegard has a way of making things work in her favor.  As her fame grows, a prominent noblewoman (Sunnyi Melles, "The Baader Meinhof Complex") brings her daughter, Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung, "The Baader Meinhof Complex," "The Reader"), to the cloister to be taught under Hildegard.  The sixteen year-old radiates adoration and the relationship that develops is another to give Jutta concern.  It will cause the only rebellion Hildegard makes that turns her champions against her, albeit not permanently.

Perhaps Hildegard's most radical achievement was the establishment of her own cloister.  Von Trotta makes the pregnancy of a young nun the impetus for von Bingen's demand, which she eventually wins through the Archbishop of Mainz.  Some nuns rebel during the construction, giving von Trotta a platform to voice von Bingen's all too human flaws through them.

Von Trotta touches on von Bingen's amazing achievements, but doesn't give them all equal shrift.  Her love for music is stated, even noted as a healing element, but her vast output of compositions is not, even though her music is used throughout the film.  Her botanical and medicinal expertise is shared as she teaches younger nuns how to recognize herbs and their uses.  Her plays are served by the performance of one, the first known morality play based on the virtues, which von Trotta ingeniously uses as another occasion for von Bingen to challenge authority and established mores.  Oddly, as von Trotta concentrates on the transcription of Hildegard's visions above all, she does not make a connection with von Bingen's lifelong sickliness, which could have been their basis.  But she ends her film on a beautiful note - just when she has us believing von Bingen's on her deathbed, another astounding facet of von Bingen's trail blazing is revealed.

Although few of the nuns other than Jutta and Richardis are articulated, their faces and types fill out a wonderful cast.  Sukowa is exceptional as the complex woman, a Renaissance woman in medieval times whose belief in her visions is tempered by her shrewdness in the political arena.  The hysteria Sukowa exhibits when faced with losing Richardis is multi-layered with meaning, her backbone shadowed with pride.  She's beautifully supported by both Stolze, who gives Jutta a deep humanity with her conditional love for Hildegard, and by Herzsprung who embodies fanatical hero worship (oddly, only Herzsprung received a nomination in the German film awards).  Heino Ferch is warm and humorous as the kindly monk who loves Hildegard, but not blindly.  Held supplies the hissable without ever pushing it too far and Melles is notable as much for her handsome stature as for the real world concerns which drive her actions.

The film looks glorious.  Cinematographer Axel Block is blessed with the events' actual cloister locations and the stunning forests and gardens which surround them.  Costume designer Ursula Welter, who also received a German film nomination for her work here, has a terrific eye for detail in the patterns, textures and weights she applies to the simple habits and the ornate oddness of period headdresses worn by nobility.  Music is ethereal and authentic.

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