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A Broader 'Vision'

Barbara Sukowa explorse many sides of Hildegard von Bingen in 'Vision.'
by Dan Lybarger

In the 81 years that she lived, Hildegard von Bingen had a résumé that read as if it applied to 12 different people instead of a single individual. She was a medical botanist, a composer, a religion writer whose work Pope Benedict the XVI has quoted regularly, a playwright and an adviser to heads of state. Any one of these accomplishments would have been impressive, but her output seems even more intimidating when you consider that for her day job, she was a 12th century German Benedictine nun.

German new wave director Margarethe von Trotta’s film about von Bingen titled Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen might have been interesting if it simply consisted of a laundry list of her achievements. The movie has just be released on DVD here in the States.

Von Bingen lived in a time and place where few women lived past 40 or 50, much less received an education. Nonetheless, what makes Vision special is that von Trotta and leading lady Barbara Sukowa, who’ve teamed up on Rosa Luxemborg and other projects, treat her not as an icon but as a flesh-and-blood person.

In the film, von Trotta gives viewers a generous sample of von Bingen’s music, holy visions, dramatic works, botanical cures and advice to Kaiser Friederich Barbarossa (Devid Striesow). At the same time, the film also includes her unusually close relationship with fellow nun Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). When Richardis is given the chance to run her own convent, von Bingen becomes oddly possessive and jealous in a manner that seems out of line with the Benedictine code.

If this sounds like a convenient invention, think again. Von Trotta drew much of the material for her script from von Bingen’s own letters and other writings. As von Trotta reveals in two separate Q&As included as extras on the DVD, von Bingen left a formidable paper trail, so there isn’t much reason to embellish.

The film also raises some intriguing issues about the Church in her era. The institution offered women a chance to pursue activities that simply weren’t available beyond its walls. At the same time, there were oppressive double standards that even in the day seemed unfair. For example, nuns who became pregnant had the leave the abbeys, but the priests who helped with the conceptions still kept their jobs.

Sukowa and von Trotta were born to work together, and it really shows here. Sukowa projects a warmth and an intelligence that make her an ideal choice for the role. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s roughly the age von Bingen during the era when the film is set. In addition, Sukowa is a terrific singer and more than does justice to von Bingen’s music.

Most of the extras that accompany the DVD for Vision aren’t even on the disc itself. A small booklet includes print interviews with the actress and the director as well as some important historical data on von Bingen herself. While the film stands firmly on its own, a little more context helps make the subject matter easier to grasp. Of the two Q&As with von Trotta on the disc, the second reveals more about von Bingen and how the director determined which of her many achievements were worth including in the film.

Vision is one of those rare movies on religion that doesn’t preach to viewers but still raises fascinating questions about what the meaning of faith really is. Of all the things that von Bingen and von Trotta have done, addressing this question may be their most important achievement.

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originally posted: 04/27/11 06:53:22
last updated: 04/27/11 06:59:18
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