What possible relevance could contemporary audiences find in the life of a cloistered, 12th century nun encumbered with the ponderous name Hildegard von Bingen? A great deal it turns out, as this surprisingly intriguing biography from German director Margarethe von Trotta vividly demonstrates. Working from her own screenplay and with the radiant German leading lady Barbara Sudowa, von Trotta, (whose career as an accomplished actor & director demonstrates once again how the latent machismo of Hollywood studios and producers has negatively impacted American film-making) provides her audiences with a bracing examination of the challenges faced by multi-talented women chafing under the male-dominated cultures in which they are forced to live.
Given by her pious, well-born parents to God at the age of eight as an “oblation”, Hildegard spent her entire life within the confines of various convents for religious women under strict rules overseen by the exclusively male authorities of the Catholic Church. Raised by an elderly anchorite (a woman who chooses to live as a religious hermit) in a cell attached to an abbey church, Hildegard not only learned to read and write but also to become a celebrated poetess, song-writer, playwright, amateur botanist and producer of herbal medicines - - infuriating church authorities with her insistence that nuns under her charge should be allowed to wear white gowns & jewelry while performing her in religious productions. Inevitably, her passionate commitment to the full development of the young women who joined her in religious life insured that she’d run afoul of the church’s male power structure; she responded by forming her own religious order, going on to build the church of St. Rupert, used today as a women’s retreat house and healing center, (serving health-conscious cuisine prepared according to Hildegard’s own recipes) and now called The Abbey of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Her iron will, passionate desire to live a virtuous life according to the principles of her religion as her conscience dictated and a continual refusal to bow to what she regarded as the undue influence of males in the conduct of the spiritual development of women’s religious orders, Hildegard prefigures 20th century feminism. (A brief, lively biography of her life can be found in author Thomas Cahill’s book entitled Mysteries of the Middle Ages, published in 2006 by Random House)
Von Trotta’s script, Sukowa’s austere performance as Hildegard and the clarity of cinematographer Axel Block’s straightforward visual style create an unexpected endorsement of the austerity that enveloped a woman decidedly at odds with the reigning norms and mores of her time. With crisp images and scenes which never run past their need to sustain the storyline, von Trotta provides a remarkably detailed portrait of this usual woman whose strength and dedication can be admired regardless of one’s theology or attitudes towards consecrated religious life.
If there’s any mystery surrounding Vision it lies the motivations of those behind its financing; what analysis of audience appetite went into the decision to make a film with so little apparent audience interest? Produced by a consortium of 4 separate companies, shown in Western Europe alone by 8 different distributors and employing the services of two banking houses, Vision once again demonstrates how certain films made in Europe can arrive in theaters without overwhelming regard to box-office potential which so relentlessly drives Hollywood’s output. In the present case, that means high quality and especially vibrant, interesting content. Would that there were more just like it showing up on America’s screens.
The Verdict? A fascinating look at a unique woman and well worth the time spent in getting to know her.
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