Film lovers and critics must expect to receive a certain amount of grief for their taste in movies, but there is a different kind flak awaiting the cinephile who loves a good foreign flick. Americans hate foreign things, especially foreign films. Just try asking a friend to go to a foreign film, and you will probably hear this reply: “When I see a movie, I want to watch it, not read it.” It is precisely this American mentality that makes it difficult for foreign films to find their way to our theaters. How much more difficult it must be for a foreign film about a medieval nun to find an American audience! Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen manages to draw a crowd, though a small one, with its jolting camera movements and creative depiction of the Catholic saint.
Hollywood has certainly had its share of movies with nuns (The Bells of St. Mary’s, Lilies of the Field, and Doubt—to name a few), but von Trotta’s Vision is so decidedly un-Hollywood (yes, a foreign film may be described as such) that one may feel overwhelmed by its numerous themes and complex narrative. The German film is a biography of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun (played by Barbara Sukowa) who not only studied medicine, healing, music, and invented the morality play, but also received visions from God. The film begins in a dark room, full of sorrowful people gathered around an altar while a priest informs them that they will never see another sunrise as it is the last day of the first millennium. Flagellants beat themselves mercilessly as they prepare for the end of the world, a medieval Y2K (or Y1K?).
The film cuts to a beautiful forest, where the young Hildegard travels to a monastery, given to the Church as a gift from her family at a very young age. She and Jutta, another “young bride,” as the Abbot Kuno (Gerald Alexander Held) calls them, are raised by the magistra, or head nun, studying theology until they are of age to take their vows. The film then flashes forward thirty years to show Hildegard elected by her sister nuns to the post of magistra. She teaches the other sisters about medicine and the healing powers of plants and stones, and her chants rise above the others as the most melodic.
More importantly, Hildegard confesses that she experiences visions of God’s light, an inextinguishable fire that requires her to write what she sees and hears from God. When the greedy and power-hungry Abbot Kuno learns of her visions, he sees only the glory and prestige (not to mention generous gifts from nobility) that will inevitably grace his monastery and encourages her to share her visions. The arrival of Richardis von Stade (Hannah Hurtzsprung), a young sister placed under Hildegard’s charge, brings a new vitality to Hildegard and the monastery. Richardis, with her light-heartedness and contagious joy, resembles everyone’s favorite Hollywood nun, Fraulein Maria from The Sound of Music, and her intense desire to study with Hildegard transforms their relationship into one of the most complex of the film.
Despite some shocking developments within the monastery, the most fascinating and striking moments of the film are Hildegard’s visions. Von Trotta’s ferocious zooms into Hildegard’s eyes have a Brechtian effect; we are pulled out of the film and forced to question what she could be seeing and if it is an authentic vision. However, our cruel director denies us the pleasure of sharing in the visions, and we must try to piece together the message she has been asked to convey from God during the few scenes of Hildegard’s dictation of her visions to Richardis. Not nearly enough screen time is devoted to these visions, drawing our attention to the sheer number of themes that von Trotta attempts to present in her short biopic: envy, greed, power struggles, vanity, selfishness, lust, and spirituality. The lack of thematic direction at times obscures the narrative and casts a shadow over the stylistic elements that ultimately deserve recognition.
However, throughout the film, von Trotta constantly calls our attention to the question of feminism or female agency, suggesting that Hildegard, though a medieval nun, is a model feminist, fighting against a patriarchal system to improve the lives of her sisters and to do God’s will. The strength of the sisters within the monastery is surprising—they work as doctors, read and write books, and even vote on major decisions. But, at least for von Trotta, there is no question that Hildegard is a true feminist, perhaps even the first feminist. And as I sat in the theater, in an audience of only a half dozen viewers, I thought about those that wouldn’t be interested in “reading” a movie about a Catholic feminist saint, and I prepared myself for the flak that I most certainly would take from some xenophobic Americans. After all, von Trotta’s film is no Sister Act.
Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta; director of photography, Axel Block; edited by Corina Dietz; original music by Christian Heyne and Hildegard von Bingen; production designer, Heike Bauersfeld; produced by Christian Baute, Hengameh Panahi, Manfred Thurau, and Markus Zimmer; released by Zeitgeist Films (USA). Runtime: 110 minutes.
With: Barbara Sukowa (Hildegard), Hannah Herzsprung (Richardis), Gerald Alexander Held (Abbot Kuno), and Heino Ferch (Volmar).
Review by Melissa Cleary