FILM REVIEW: 'Vision'...Hildegard von Bingen
Vision: From the Life Of Hildegard von Bingen, a film written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, (Zeitgeist Films). In German, with English subtitles.
This historical biopic about Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Benedictine nun, visionary, composer, poet, healer, herbalist, and nature-lover, opens with a scene in a church at the close of the first millennium. Expecting the world to end at midnight, some people flagellate themselves, others pray. Eventually they fall asleep. The next morning a girl about 5-years-old and a teenage boy are first to awaken. As the little girl watches in wonder, the boy goes to the church door, opens it, and glories in the bright sunshine. The scene shifts to a blonde girl of about 8 being taken to a cloister where she is expected to eventually become a nun. This is young Hildegard (Stella Hozapfel), one of ten children in a weathy family, whose childhood has been marked by illness, once so severe that she had to stay in bed for a year. After Hildegard’s family leaves the cloister the nuns inhabit under the supervision of Benedictine monks, the Magistra, Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl) tells her, "I’ll be your mother now. You can trust me." Hildegard rooms with another girl her age, also with the first name Jutta, and they becomes close friends. They are dismayed by another instance they witness of self-flagellation, a common practice among the Benedictines. The film then jumps forward 30 years. The Magistra is dying and asks all the nuns to leave the room except Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa). She asks for and receives from Hildegard a "farewell kiss." Hildegard and her friend Jutta (Lena Stolze) have the responsibility of preparing von Sponheim’s body for burial and discover that under her habit, she has been wearing a belt that appears to be of sharp metal. They remove the belt and are appalled by the practice that has left caked blood and scars on her skin. The monks inform the nuns that Von Sponheim’s wish was that Hildegard be the new Magistra. Jutta is jealous that the Magistra preferred Hildegard over her. The monks are ready to carry out the Magistra’s will and appoint Hildegard. But Hildegard asks that instead the nuns vote on whether they want her in this high position. They vote by dropping either a white (yes) or black (no) ball into a box. All but one ball is white and she is elected. Thrilled by her election, all the nuns but one happily kneel around Hildegard. Jutta remains standing in the background.
As Magistra, Hildegard uses herbs to heal a monk’s flagellation wounds and says, "He who kills the flesh kills he who inhabits it." We then hear the first of Hildegard’s songs included in this film. Hildegard is the first woman whose musical compositions have survived to the present time. Many of her vocal compositions have a sublime ethereal quality, as they soar to high soprano registers without male voices to anchor them. Besides teaching her nuns to heal with music, Hildegard teaches them to heal with herbs and with chrysoprase (a variety of quartz), saying, "First our souls must heal and then our bodies will follow."
Hildegard confesses to her friend, Brother Volmar (Heino Ferch), that she has had visions since she was 3-years-old. This is a dangerous move because the Church then must decide whether the visions come from God or from the Devil. Usually they assume the latter. Hildegard tells Volmar that her sin is not doing something she was appointed to do. She kisses him on the lips, but don’t get excited. There is a lot of lip-kissing in this film among the cloistered, yet I don’t think we are to necessarily read the erotic into this—it apparently was just the custom, possibly the equivalent of today’s cheek-kissing. Hildegard is brought before a group of monks who will decide from whence or whom her visions come. She tells them she didn’t see the visions in a dream or dream-like state, rather she saw them when she was awake and clear-eyed. The monks are ready to recommend her ex-communication, but Bernard of Clairvaux intercedes on her behalf and the Pope grants her permission to publish her visions.
A young woman named Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), is brought to the cloister by her wealthy family, including her particularly enthusiastic mother. Lively Richardis seems to have a crush on the Magistra. Later, Hildegard talks to her about the nuns being a community. But Richardis tells Hildegard that she wants to be joined only to Hildegard and wants to be close to her as long as she lives. Consistent with the low-key, emotionally-even characterization of Hildegard (and most of the other characters), she neither accepts nor rejects Richardis’ passionate statement and we are left to wonder what her feelings are. Later in the film, we find out.
Hildegard uses lapses in the vows of one of her nuns and a monk to build a case for obtaining a nuns-only cloister. First she is threatened with ex-communication for this apparently uppity request, but Brother Volmar comes to her aid and is appointed "provost" of the new convent (they have to have a male to oversee them, right?). During a beautiful scene in the German woods as the Sisters and Brother travel on horseback to Rupertsberg, where the nuns have been granted land in Bingen, Hildegard experiences a vision. Although the project does not always go smoothly, eventually the Abby is built, with running water at Hildegard’s insistence. Hildegard, now Abbess, becomes known as a seer and is sought for her predictions of the future by clergy and royalty. In her Abby, we are treated to a scene from Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, considered by some to be the first medieval morality play. (I was fortunate to see the January 1989 performance of it at the Washington [National] Cathedral.) We hear another of Hildegard’s vocal compositions—this one with all voices but one singing in drone; the single voice singing in high soprano—after one of the nuns dies. The film closes with Hildegard making yet another unconventional choice.
Director Margarethe von Trotta, who is usually identified as a feminist and as part of the New German Cinema , gives us a picture both of medieval life in a Benedictine cloister and of an extremely talented woman’s effort to overcome restrictions placed on her by society, religion, and illness. Von Trotta does this not with melodramatics, not with flashy cinematography, but with a straightforward approach that seems to mimic real life. Under von Trotta’s direction, Barbara Surkowa’s portrayal of Hildegard therefore gives us not a glamorized hero, though she may take heroic actions, but rather a human.
Vision had its U. S. East Coast premiere in New York City on October 13 and is scheduled to have its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles on Nov. 5. For a schedule of showings elsewhere in the U.S. visit visionthefilm.com, scroll down to the bottom and click on "playdates." The film opened in Germany in 2009. I watched Visions on a "screener " DVD from Zeitgeist Films.
TAGS: reviews film Hildegard of Bingen Vision spiritual feminism