Vision: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen
The mystic-nun’s story takes a serious look at a tempestuous life
Margarethe von Trotta — one of the founding mothers of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, colleague of Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, director of the fiery feminist drama “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum’’ (1975) — hasn’t been heard from much in these parts lately. “Vision’’ is only the third of her movies in the last quarter century to get a US release (2003’s “Rosenstrasse’’ and 1995’s “The Promise’’ were the others), but it’s good enough to make you curious about what we’ve been missing.
Subtitled “From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen,’’ “Vision’’ is a gorgeously filmed, surprisingly tough-minded portrait of the 12th-century Benedictine nun, scholar, mystic, and composer. Von Bingen (1098—1179) gained renewed popularity in the 1990s when recordings of her medieval plainsong started popping up on classical radio and in New Age coffee shops, but the director is more interested in the character’s status as an unsung feminist pioneer.
The German actress Barbara Sukowa (“Lola,’’ “Zentropa’’) plays von Bingen and she’s the right woman for the job, with a natural imperiousness and blue laser-beam eyes that can reduce the unworthy to a scorch mark. Raised from the age of 8 in the monastery at Disibodenberg, von Bingen early on butts heads with the abbot (Alexander Held), who worships political advancement more than God.
Hildegard worships God through nature — she becomes famed for her knowledge of the healing properties of plants and minerals — but it’s her ecstatic heavenly visions, the Lord speaking to her in bursts of light, that make her a rock star for the Middle Ages. Defying the male-dominated hierarchy, she founds her own monastery at Rupertsberg and becomes known as the “Sybil of the Rhine,’’ attracting heavy-breathing groupies like the teenage noblewoman-turned-nun Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung).
“Vision’’ dramatizes von Bingen’s accomplishments with a smooth sense of purpose that never turns slick; at the same time, it’s a melodrama about a brilliant, stubborn woman who comes to believe too much in her own earthly power. The climactic scenes, in which an aging Hildegard is undone by her acolyte’s betrayal, are as tempestuous as any high-end soap opera, and they hint at the repressed eroticism that can give religious faith a fearful intensity.
“Vision’’ is mature moviemaking in the best sense: Filmed with gracious stateliness, it’s an offering by two powerful female artists, von Trotta and Sukowa, to a historical third. Better yet, the movie’s aware of all the complexities that can raise up and bring down a willful woman in a world of men. Somewhere Bette Davis is smiling.