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by Lybarger

"At last, a movie on religion that doesn’t play like a sermon."
4 stars

The life of 12th century German nun Hildegard von Bingen would certainly make for an interesting movie. Actually, several good films could be made about her. In her 80 years, she was a playwright, scientist, composer and religion writer. Had she been simply been any one of these, her life would have been remarkable. Veteran German New Wave writer-director Margarethe von Trotta (‘The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,’ ‘Rosa Luxemburg’) manages to make a credible biopic about this fascinating woman by featuring some of her résumé points and by avoiding the formidable temptation to canonize her.

While von Trotta’s script includes the content of von Bingen’s letters, scripts, songs and other writings, her smartest decision may have been casting fellow German New Wave alumna Barbara Sukowa (“Lola” and four of von Trotta’s other films). Sukowa projects a warmth and an intelligence that are essential for the role, and it doesn’t hurt that she can sing von Bingen’s compositions beautifully.

“Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen” focuses primarily on von Bingen’s ambivalent relationship with the Church that provided her numerous vocations. Left at a cloister as a child (played by Stella Holzapfel), the frequently ill von Bingen finds spiritual, emotional and intellectual nurturing that she probably wouldn’t have found outside its walls. The options for women at the time were limited, so becoming a nun offered exceptional opportunities. Naturally, von Bingen takes advantage of them.

As a result, heads of state consult with her, and bishops and cardinals support her claims of having seen visions. But she gradually makes an enemy of the local abbot (Alexander Held). While her young nuns get kicked out of a cloister for breaking their vows of celibacy, the priests and monks who impregnated them stay put. Understandably, von Bingen has a problem with that and wants a cloister of her own.

She also begins a close relationship with a supportive monk named Brother Volman (Heino Ferch) and a young nun from a noble family named Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung), who transcribes her visions. Early on von Bingen tries to help Richardis adapt to the austere convent lifestyle, but gradually she becomes jealous when the younger nun is offered an abbey of her own. Needless to say, it leads to behavior that doesn’t seem terribly Benedictine.

Because von Bingen occasionally behaves more like a real person than someone whose face belongs on a devotional medal, it’s easier to get into what could have been a dry history lesson on a potentially engrossing subject. Seeing her at her low points, makes von Bingen’s triumphs feel more satisfying, and thankfully, there are plenty of those.

Visually, the film has an intriguing dichotomy where the sequences in the cloisters seem dark, drab and cold, where as the exteriors practically burst into color. While this is in character for von Bingen’s naturalism, it’s also a nod to reality because the film was shot in real stone cloisters that existed in von Bingen’s day, when modern lighting wasn’t a factor.

While she may not believe in visions like von Bingen’s, von Trotta depicts the nun’s beliefs in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner. She didn’t see her revelations in dreams or a daze, but in wide-eyed lucid manner. Most are also wisely presented off-screen. The one vision the audience gets to share with her disappoints because it seems more at home on an antiquated Wii than near a medieval German abbey.

Nonetheless, it’s a relief to see a film that seriously explores issues of faith without thumping viewers over the head with the Good Book. Exploration is infinitely more entertaining than didacticism.

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originally posted: 10/14/10 05:33:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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