Scenes from the life of a mystic

Seven centuries before Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was bullied into silence by Church fathers who pronounced it improper for a bride of Christ to create poetry, another gifted nun was writing books, composing music, and practicing medicine. She also ran her own cloister. Reluctant to submit to male authority, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) seems like an interloper from the 21st century, except that she was trapped in an age wherein nunneries were the only domain in which women, otherwise condemned to illiteracy and consigned to maternity, could find some freedom.

Early in Vision, the gates to the Benedictine cloister of Disibodenberg lock shut behind a bright little girl who has been deposited there for the rest of her life. Under the loving tutelage of Jutta von Sponheim, the leader of the nuns within the compound, Hildegard blossoms into a spirited but virtuous member of the order. What distinguishes her from her sister nuns is a tendency to experience visions. The abbott is skeptical, but he recognizes a talent he can exploit to enhance the reputation and swell the treasury of his cloister. And Hildegard plays the Church authorities against one another to advance her interests.

Every film is a vision. A contemporary of Hildegard’s who suddenly materialized in a theater showing Avatar or Toy Story would be convinced that the images flitting across the screen were a mystical visitation. The challenge facing veteran German director Margarethe von Trotta, who has been drawn to stubborn women in Marianne and Juliane, Rosa Luxemburg, and Rosenstrasse, was how to portray, within the vision that is cinema, the apparitions of divinity received by a mortal woman. Von Trotta avoids the tacky platitude of bolts of lightning, choirs of angels, and the deific voice of a Prussian Charlton Heston. Her Vision is less religious than spiritual and, in fact, less spiritual than psychological and political. The film prefers analysis to reverence. Hildegard describes the blazing light, but for the most part what we see are the consequences of illumination, the ways in which she uses her special gift to move out of Disibodenberg and construct her own abbeys at Bingen on the Rhine and Rupertsberg, off limits to men except her devoted provost Volmar (Ferch).

“What if it’s the devil’s vision?” asks the abbott, not convinced that the uppity woman initially in his charge is inspired by God. Barbara Sukowa’s nuanced performance does not preclude the possibility that, on some level of consciousness, Hildegard is faking her visions, but it leaves no doubt that she is adept at using those visions to extract extraordinary concessions for herself and the women under her authority.

Vision is not hagiography; the film could not be a saint’s life if for no other reason than, though it beatified Hildegard, the Catholic Church never got around to canonizing her. Sukowa’s Hildegard is a master of naturopathy and a talented composer, whose music lends authority and melody to the proceedings. Rejecting the life-denying asceticism practiced by other Benedictines, she tells her nuns: “God loves beauty.” However, she is a harsh taskmaster toward them and, despite her vows of humility, enjoys the fame and privilege that come with being the leading mystic of her age. During several frequent bouts of illness, Hildegard seems to be adopting tactical hypochondria. When her favorite acolyte, Richardis von Stade (Herzsprung), insists on striking out on her own, Hildegard responds with a fit of pique appropriate to a jilted lesbian lover of our own time. A compilation of vignettes (the film is not a complete life), it ends abruptly on the verge of a breakthrough in Hildegard’s career.

Vision is a time machine, an invitation to travel back a millennium to a theocratic world of drafty, candle-lit chambers, in which even an emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, submits to the Pope. Yet a crafty woman can wheedle the emperor. It is a patriarchal tyranny in which a wayward nun in Hildegard’s abbey is banished, but the lusty monk who is her co-conspirator in pregnancy escapes unpunished. However, despite severe constraints on female lives in medieval Europe, one extraordinary woman manages to make herself into a Renaissance man – a composer, playwright, scientist, physician, and theologian. It is no wonder that von Trotta was drawn to portray this proto-feminist. If she were alive today, Hildegard von Bingen would surely be making films.

Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
(Vision – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen)

Writ & dir. Margarethe von Trotta; feat. Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung (Not rated)

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