Barbara Sukowa (left) plays 12th-centruy abbess Hildegard von Bingen, who teaches Sister Clara (Paula Kalenberg) and her other nuns about medicine and philosophy.
Vision: From The Life Of Hildegard Von Bingen
- Director: Margarethe von Trotta
- Genre: Foreign
- Running Time: 111 minutes
With: Barbara Sukowa
In German with English subtitles
There's a strangely retro feel to Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen -- and not just because its subject is a 12th-century nun famous for being called from above to light up the dark ages with science, music and pleasure.
Of course, you might be seeing things, too, if, as German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta explains in the movie's opening scenes, you began life as a sickly child confined to bed for a year. And then you were thrust at a tender age into a cloister with the news that you were now the bride of God. And you later witnessed the death of your beloved mentor from the bloody aftereffects of the chains she'd wrapped tight 'round her body to build character.
The life of a devout Benedictine abbess may seem an odd choice for von Trotta, a former disciple of Rainer Werner Fassbinder known for making highly politicized feminist films like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Marianne and Juliane. But the writer-director doesn't go out of her way to cast doubt on von Bingen's mystical powers; indeed, she takes them pretty much on trust, focusing meanwhile on the abbess as the gifted polymath and innovator she undoubtedly was.
Still, it might be a stretch to recast von Bingen (played with majestic severity by the charismatic Barbara Sukowa) as a '70s-style New Age feminist and herbal healer, as von Trotta has. Shot in a slate-gray Rembrandt light, with a haunting score (some of which was composed by von Bingen herself), her handsome, heavy-breathing melodrama comes loaded with scenic views -- and a clutch of the hottest sisters you ever saw.
It's mounted, though, with the ponderous gravitas of a high-school nativity play. The film lumbers forward, its action slowed by speechifying dialogue and broad hints at a lip-locking female-crush culture erotic enough to put a girls' boarding school to shame.
Sunnyi Melles plays the influential mother of Richardis, a novice at the monastery.
The arrival of Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), a frisky young novice with violet eyes and a tendency to "see" sylphs under every rock, brings out ambiguously maternal feelings in the magistra. (In me, alas, it provoked involuntary toe-tapping and a powerful urge to solve a problem like Maria.) The movie's incongruously contemporary earth-mother feminism also had me helplessly imagining a Monty Python spin on von Trotta's nay-saying beetle-browed monks, the nuns' regular fits of the vapors and the seemingly endless dying and springing back to life of the virgin-in-chief herself.
Von Trotta gives us little reason to doubt that von Bingen was a seriously good egg, a modernizing democrat (so long as her own authority remained unchallenged) who wangled her own all-woman convent out of the pope. She allowed her charges to shed their habits (in every sense) to stage what may have been the world's first morality musical, and urged all of her colleagues to get out of the cloisters, go forth into the world and practice random acts of kindness.
But good eggs don't make for good movies unless they show a few warts. So it's no surprise that this stately but inert biopic wakes up only when von Bingen becomes less of a singing-nun superstar and more of a human unglued by her own flaws. Caught up in the blind love of her sisters and the loyalty of the one brother (Heino Ferch) who sticks by her, this otherwise astute politician fails to see that her bizarrely coiffed patroness -- Richardis' mother, played by Sunnyi Melles -- has grander ambitions for her daughter than having her groomed by von Bingen in her own image. Those internal politics are great fun, but ultimately von Trotta can't resist a giddily hippie finale filled with worthy messaging that all you need is love. I feel another musical coming on.