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“Vision” is the true story of 12th-century nun Hildegard Von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa), a remarkable woman who broke the conventions of her time to become a naturalist, musician, and divine Seer. Her ability to communicate directly with God puts her at odds with the repressive Catholic hierarchy, and she is repeatedly forced to defend herself, her fellow nuns, and the truth of her convictions. Eventually her persistence paid off; hundreds of years later, her legacy remains intact.
Before her face-offs with priests and bishops, acclaimed German director Margarethe Von Trotta shows us Hildegard’s progress as a child. She is dropped off at the convent as a tithe from her wealthy parents, grows attached to the nun who takes care of her, and forms a complicated relationship with another young nun, Jutta (Lena Stolze), who becomes her spiritual sister. When the Magistra, or head nun, dies suddenly, Hildegard rejects the head priest’s attempt to appoint her to the position; she insists that the other nuns vote for the successor, and maintain control over their own order. It’s the first in a long line of Hildegard’s rebellions towards male authority, but in the end the result is the same: she becomes the new Magistra.
Eventually, Hildegard decides to form her own convent. In order to break away from the monastery and its male rulers, she makes connections with local lords, landowners, and other church officials—all of which she does with panache, even, at one point, taking advantage of her own illness to sway her critics. The political machinations in the film are fascinating—rich families bequeath their daughters to the convent in order to prop up their own names, and knights call on Hildegard to tell them their futures. Hildegard’s resilience in the face of the Church’s intimidation is striking; indeed, a sort of proto-feminism is evident within the convent, where the women rely only on each other.
Hildegard’s relationships with other women are really at the heart of the film; she has an especially complex connection with a much younger nun, Richardis (Hannah Hertzsprung), which can be read as both maternal and romantic. The lines are very blurry—Hildegard and Richardis frequently speak of their love for each other, and it’s impossible to know exactly what they mean. Von Trotta is known for her portrayals of strong female characters, and her foregrounding of female relationships; her film “Marianne and Juliane” (1981) was both her big break and that of Sukowa, her frequent collaborator.
“Vision” is gorgeous to look at, and Sukowa gives a bravura performance; she’s someone whose name should be better known in the US. The film also makes a point of showcasing Hildegard’s music, which is fascinating. Though the
New German Cinema director Margarethe Von Trotta
pace can drag a little at times, it’s well worth sticking it out.
“Vision” opened in limited release in New York on October 13th.