For this reviewer, the most memorable intersection of motion pictures and Catholicism involves Fordham Road and University Avenue in the Bronx, circa 1961. Across those streets, the lovely Sister Laureen herded a class of unruly uniformed first-graders to see the Twentieth Century Fox epic “Francis of Assisi.” As a movie, and a moral lesson, it left almost no impression other than the memory of a miraculous morning free of school. But as I have discovered recently, courtesy of the invaluable Internet Movie Database, “Francis” was directed by Michael Curtiz (who also directed “Casablanca”) and featured Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman and Dolores Hart, who, perhaps not coincidentally, later entered a religious order.
As a film, “Francis” qualifies more as a symptom: ancient Hollywood always had a weakness for Catholicism, a fixation often blamed on the early Jewish film moguls’ desire to pre-empt anti-Semitic criticism. But the results were a mixed blessing. Some film fans, it is safe to say, would rather revisit the director Henry King’s “Jesse James,” say, than his “Song of Bernadette.”
But Vision, the story of the German mystic, writer, composer, artist and protofeminist Hildegard von Bingen, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, is not Hollywood cinema. Neither is it forgettable, either as a movie or a moral lesson.
The performance of Barbara Sukowa as Hildegard seems as much an act of faith as it is acting; it’s difficult to imagine that a performer could inhabit a personality as fierce, idiosyncratic and fraught with complexities as Hildegard without believing in what the woman was, and in what she aspired to be. Of course, that may simply be an example of miraculous transference, empathy and performance. But viewers will choose to believe otherwise. The totality of what Hildegard was and meant to be is too unruly a mob of meanings, intentions, interpretations and signifiers to be herded into one movie, so von Trotta does what any self-respecting dramatist would do: She presents Hildegard as a woman first, and an object of veneration second.
Von Trotta’s work as a director includes “Rosenstrasse” (2003), “Rosa Luxembourg” (1986) and “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” (1975), which she and her ex-husband, Volker Schlöndorff, co-wrote and co-directed. Von Trotta is a feminist filmmaker, who in “Vision” concentrates on Hildegard’s position as a progressive in an ecclesiastical universe of mortification. Indeed, Hildegard’s mentor, Jutta the Holy (Lena Stolze), is discovered on her deathbed to have worn under her clothing a belt of ragged steel, her flesh discolored and septic. Self-flagellation is the rage.
As the film opens—on “the last day of the first millennium”—the faithful are portrayed as a doomsday cult awaiting the end of the world in a tableau that suggests Jonestown as much as it does Y2K. Into this world Hildegard is born; it is one she will help reform and modernize, at least in the gospel according to Margarethe.
The young Hildegard von Bingen was given over to the church by her parents, whose motives are presented as suspect. The child was frequently “ill,” although her symptoms are interpreted here as the visions that made, and continue to make, Hildegard an object of cultish veneration. The Benedictine sister’s worldly accomplishments were multitudinous: she is credited with creating opera; advancing architecture, plumbing and herbal medicine; and all with a certain aggressive advocacy of women at a time when such an approach equaled heresy.
Her credentials as a mystic were questioned then and are questioned now. The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has cited Hildegard as a likely sufferer of migraine headaches, which had not been defined in 1136 but cause symptoms similar to Hildegard’s visions. Von Trotta allows room for that interpretation. Hildegard’s episodes seem to coincide with the stress she suffers at the hands of her abbot at Disibodenberg (Alexander Held), who initially sees Hildegard’s cosmic connections with “the living light” as something to be parlayed into contributions of land and money, but who recoils from her demands for autonomy.
Perhaps the most controversial sequence in the story involves Hildegard’s subordinate, Sister Clara (Paula Kalenberg), who becomes pregnant by a brother at the co-ed cloister at Disibodenberg. (According to the director, this episode was not inspired by anything in Hildegard’s past, but rather by archeological research into life in medieval co-ed monasteries). “Maybe there’s a medicine I could take,” the desperate Clara pleads, as Hildegard silently recoils. The banished nun, after consulting one of Hildegard’s medical texts, commits suicide by poisonous herb. The knife’s edge of knowledge is razor sharp.
Hildegard’s intellect is also sharp. It leads her into various fields of intellectual exploration, not the least of which is politics. Her successful “negotiations” with the abbot regarding the founding of a monastery at Rupertsberg, which would become her permanent home base, is less about pure logic than the aligning of political allies (including the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux). But Hildegard is also a fierce theological debater. Parrying with a visiting “magistra” (as the abbess is called here), she recalls the young Jesus debating the temple elders; von Trotta’s strategy—to structure Hildegard’s biography as a parallel to the story of Jesus himself—suddenly becomes clear.
There is a passion of Hildegard as well. Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), an angel-faced nonconformist, is brought to the monastery by her wealthy, noble mother (Sunnyi Melles) and becomes Hildegard’s obsession. Here the story wanders from holy to profane. When Richardis is suddenly plucked from the Rupertsberg cloister to head a monastery of her own, Hildegard becomes desperate, pleading, literally getting on her knees to her old nemesis, the abbot, to keep Richardis near her. The visionary mystic, who certainly seems caught in a riptide of lesbian love, is reduced to her most basic, and even base, elements. But the effect is to bring Hildegard to earth and recognizable human experience.
The look of the film is extraordinary. Shot in widescreen format, but set almost exclusively inside the two monasteries where the story unfolds, the film possesses a natural visual tension created by its intimacy and broad scope. The compositions of cinematographer Axel Block suggest Jan van Eyck, his lighting Vermeer. It is a memorable, beautiful film.
Now if only St. Francis of Assisi could get himself an advocate like Margarethe von Trotta.