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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Nov. 11, 2010 | 1:49 PM

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VISION: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen

Evoking the past in the present is never an easy task.  The farther back we look, the more difficult it becomes to locate reliable evidence of how lives were lived.  Never one to shy away from a challenge, noted feminist filmmaker Magarethe Von Trotta begins the action of her new film, VISION: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen, in the year 1098.  That was the year that Hildegard Von Bingen was born, and Von Trotta make a valiant effort here to give an effective cinematic rendering of Von Bingen’s extraordinary life in the Catholic Church.  Beautifully shot in still exisiting convents in Germany, the film is a fine introduction to Von Bingen’s life, even when it’s forced to simplify some of the details.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, some background is in order.  The daughter of a well to do family, young Hildegard Von Bingen was presented “as a gift” to a retreat adjacent to a friary in Disibodenberg, Bermershein (what’s now Germany).  She was cared for there by Sister Jutta von Sponheim, who raised her as her own, and prepared her for convent life.  At the age of 13,  she took monastic vows and became a Benedictine nun.  When she was 30, Sister Jutta died and Von Bingen was appointed head of her Sister community by her fellow nuns.  It’s not long after this that she confesses to Brother Volmar, one of the monks, that she has been seeing visions from a very young age.  Not just dreams, but waking conscious visions which she believes are from “the living light.”  She receives permission from the Church authorities to begin transcribing the visions with the help of Brother Volmar and a new addition to the convent, 16 year old Richardis Von Stade.  A few years later, she’s allowed to strike out on her own with the sisters and form her own convent, Rupertsberg, on top of a hillside along the Rhine.

It can hardly be overstated what an amazing figure Von Bingen was for her time.  In addition to her visions, which were the subject of considerable controversy among the Patriarchal power structure of the Church, she was a voracious reader, and published several books over the course of her lifetime.  Many of these books took a holistic approach to medicine, and one of them was among the first works ever published on female sexuality.  All of these things were unprecedented for a woman during this time period, as was Von Bingen’s decision late in life to travel around the country and preach.

The problem with VISION is that the movie can’t possibly live up to the accomplishments of its subject.  Von Trotta and her cinematographer Axel Block do outstanding work re-creating the time period, and the combination of centuries old locations along with the lush German countryside give the film an appropriately mystical mood.  The acting is also stellar throughout.  Barbara Sukowa, who did such great work with Rainer Fassbinder brings just the right combination of humility and gravitas to her portrayal of Von Bingen, and Hannah Herzsprung is radiant as the precocious Richardis.

But many of the events of Von Bingen’s life are either uncinematic (writing Latin by hand in books) or patently unfilmable,(visions of “the living light”) and so the film struggles to find a rhythm.  Von Trotta seems most intrigued by the intense relationship that develops between Von Bingen and her young charge, Richardis, but this plotline is carefully built then abruptly severed.  The ambiguous ending of the film works fine, as Von Bingen is sent off into the country to preach, but falls a bit flat for such an inspiring subject.  In between, Von Trotta and Sukowa give us sort of a greatest hits version of Von Bingen’s life.  To their credit, the taste we’re given is enough to make the viewer want to learn more.

VISION: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen opens at the Royal Theatre in Los Angeles on November 12th.


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