She was a Renaissance woman centuries before the Renaissance. Born at the dawn of the second millennium, in times still medieval, Hildegard of Bingen wrote music, poetry, plays and books on philosophy, medicine and human reproduction, all while serving as the abbess of a Benedictine convent.
Many of her works still survive and, through them, modern-day feminists have appointed their author a pioneering saint, an inspiring combination of mystic and logician.
Now, in Vision, director Margarethe von Trotta brings her life to the screen, and it should be a fascinating tale. But pure hagiography is a tough genre to crack - saints who don't become martyrs, who embody goodness without paying the price, are awfully hard to dramatize.
The daughter of a wealthy German family, Hildegard is taken to the cloister as a child, where, in the opening sequence, she is heard to precociously claim, "I've been given to God as a gift."
Apparently, God agrees, investing her with "visions" that, as an adult, she finally confesses to the skeptical male hierarchy, the abbots who run the place. They doubt her, but more senior clerics do not, and in that beginning is the Word: Hildegard is allowed to transcribe and publish her "messages from God," which, given the excerpts here, read more like philosophic musings, almost humanistic in their clear-eyed warmth.
That's the intrigue of the woman. On one hand, she's still a product and a prisoner of her mystical age, confined to a literal theology of heavenly angels and hellish demons. But, on the other, she has a hunger for learning that fuels her escape into a progressive future of rational thought and applied logic.
Not for her the practice of self-flagellation or extreme fasting: "What kills the body kills the soul." Instead, her God loves beauty, encourages health, rewards knowledge and promotes justice.
To worship Him, then, is to pursue His loves, and so she does - teaching her acolytes herbal medicine; encouraging them to sing her compositions and perform her pageants (the chanted music here is sublime); even breaking free from the authoritarian abbots to start her own cloister, situated near a big port that invites the world to her doorstep. Yes, she's a skilled politician too.
Barbara Sukowa brings her veteran presence to the role, and nicely fuses its dual nature, holy instrument and holy terror, the passive vessel of a higher power and the active force of the good mother - Mother Nature, Mother Earth, Mother Superior. And von Trotta lights the film accordingly, shooting the monastic interiors through a glass darkly, but, outside, letting tomorrow's brightness shine in.
Yet there's still that hagio-pic problem: Where's the drama? The picture's central dialectic between the stultified present and the emerging future is fine, but it's too easily resolved, both within the abbess herself and elsewhere in the narrative. Von Trotta keeps trying to stir up some tension, initially with those chauvinistic monks and later with Hildegard's most beloved nun, who takes her liberal teachings rather too much to heart. This latter contretemps hints at interesting flaws in our saint, even a smidge of hypocrisy, yet they never really get explored - quickly, it's right back on the path of goodness and mercy.
There, Vision stays the course, determined to convert us to the gospel according to Hildegard. Well, count me partly in - I believe in the historical facts, now show me some dramatic truths.
- Directed and written by Margarethe von Trotta
- Starring Barbara Sukowa
- Classification: G
Vision begins a limited run at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday.