Roger Ebert review: http://is.gd/gJ5St
A Multitasking Nun in Medieval Germany
“Vision,” Margarethe von Trotta’s sympathetic imagining of the life of the 12th-century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen, opens with a prologue that establishes a contemporary secular distance from the film’s devotional medieval ethos. The members of a millennialist sect anticipating their last night on earth prostrate themselves in an abbey overnight only to awaken in the bright morning sun to discover that the world hasn’t ended.
The film is the most recent of several collaborations between Ms. von Trotta, the German feminist director, and Barbara Sukowa, the radiant actress who portrays Hildegard as a mixture of canny politician and fervent mystic who claims to receive messages directly from God. In the film’s sole attempt to visualize an encounter with what Hildegard calls “the living light,” the apparition resembles the CBS logo without the letters.
“Vision” offers a hard-headed view of 12th-century religiosity in which church politics and money conflict with the characters’ asceticism. It portrays Hildegard as a passionate humanitarian and a lover of nature who is shocked and disgusted by the mortification of the flesh through rituals like self-flagellation and extreme fasting.
Among the grim monks in the Disibodenberg cloister where Hildegard is elected magistra, she has one consistent supporter in Brother Volmar (Heino Ferch). Most of the others, but particularly the reigning abbot (Alexander Held), suspect her of being a tool of the Devil. By describing her visions, she risks excommunication. The movie offers a harsh portrait of a patriarchal environment steeped in fear and superstition. An individual here is either on the side of God or of the Devil, with no in between. For all the eloquence of Hildegard’s speeches, she was not quite a saint.
Of all the sins she mentions, the most recurrent, envy, afflicts her childhood best friend, Jutta (Lena Stolze). And when a charismatic 16-year-old novice, Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung), joins the order and becomes Hildegarde’s protégée, Jutta is secretly devastated. Hildegard and Richardis ride an emotional seesaw of possessiveness and dependence that suggests a love affair. Yet there is no mention of an erotic relationship (or even thoughts of one) between them. In any case, the intensity of their attachment and the shifting balance of power that initially favors Hildegard, then tilts toward Richardis, suggest a sublimated romantic passion.
The film meticulously ticks off Hildegard’s accomplishments. She composed Gregorian chants, fragments of which are heard in the film. She was a playwright whose lyrical drama, “Ordo Virtutum” is excerpted in a scene in which the nuns, as they were allowed to do on certain holidays, frolic in silk gowns and jewels. She was a scholar who amassed a library at a time when books were rare and difficult to obtain, and she was a practitioner of holistic medicine with advanced knowledge of herbal healing.
The movie’s admiration for Hildegarde is tinged with a worldly cynicism. At crisis points in her life, Hildegard apparently feigns near-death experiences only to revive suddenly through prayer or a miraculous intervention: a theatrical strategy that illustrates to adversaries her special connection to divine forces when she is thwarted by earthly ones.
It shows her as a sophisticated politician whose appeals to people in high places keep her safe from harm. Through careful maneuvering she secures the nuns their own well-situated convent after one nun in her flock becomes pregnant and commits suicide.
Ms. Sukowa makes Hildegard a likable and charismatic woman who risks a great deal to do good in an environment that leaves women little room for self-expression. Her intelligence and enthusiasm make her a proto-feminist force to be reckoned with. New York Times