When the Vatican recently denounced the ordaining of female priests as a crime equal to priests molesting children, it became apparent that little has changed for women over time within the Catholic Church. But back in the 12th century, there was a German Benedictine nun who shook up the church hierarchy a bit, even if she’s now nearly forgotten.
And the buried history of Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen is now resurrected as the subject of a biopic, Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision. A sickly child who was unhappily dumped at the local unisex monastery by her aristocratic parents as a kind of tithe in exchange for political favors, Hildegard eventually rose to the position of mother superior and beloved leader of the cloistered sisterhood. While at the same time cultivating multiple talents unheard of for women back then. Including excelling as gifted composer, playwright, poet, philosopher, naturalist, scientist, physician, herbalist, and perhaps one of the first ecological activists.
Writer/director von Trotta (Marianne And Julianne, Rosa Luxemburg, Berlin Alexanderplatz) lyrically reenacts the life of the deeply religious, strong willed and at times defiant Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa), and her nurturing though occasionally bossy and possessive relationship with the younger nuns. And at one point boldly confronting resistance to building a separate nunnery for them, in reaction to the lecherous designs of the monks. In other words, while Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, Hildegard led the nuns out of the horny monastery.
A concurrent theme in the film is the periodic communication with God that Hildegard claimed since childhood, and which led to suspicions among the church hierarchy that she was possessed by the devil. Though today a far different psychiatric diagnosis by Oliver Sacks, assesses those visions as actually migraines. There are also intimations within the film that she may have privately considered herself the second coming of Christ as a female, which would have been a definite pre-feminist heretical no-no back then.
Vision is filled with imagery that is striking to behold, in capturing a poetic, living aura of that ancient time and place. But there’s a stilted, historically removed and insular period piece sense as well, that von Trotta herself retains a nearly religious affection towards her protagonist that is far too subjective, not unlike the adoring nuns surrounding Hildegard.
Which in contrast to Clint Eastwood’s similarly mystical but consistently secular Hereafter, leaves little elbow room for nonbeliever audience comfort zones. Though Hildegard poking a few holes through that medieval stained glass ceiling, however fleeting, could not be timelier.
2 1/2 stars
Vision is opening for its US theatrical premiere at NYC’s Film Forum beginning October 13th. More information is online at: filmforum.org.