Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
At Film Forum Oct. 13-26
Runtime: 110 min.
BE THE first woman,” says the 12th-century Benedictine nun Hildegard
von Bingen in Vision. She’s proclaiming her right to preach the gospel
despite the gender restrictions of the Order. As the role is played by
Barbara Suwoka, she’s also speaking director Margarethe von Trotta’s
assertion of female will and independence. Vision revives von Trotta’s
old-school feminism but with a purer focus than some of her earlier
films: the tendentious Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and the sentimental
Marianne and Julianne (1981) and Sisters, Or the Balance of Happiness
(1979). In Vision, von Trotta achieves a non-preachy coolness that
suggests wisdom. Her politics are clear, but they submerge in
fascination for von Bingen’s rule-breaking, pioneering faithfulness.
exactly a spiritual movie, so it doesn’t achieve the aesthetic,
mystical power of such intellectualized films about women in the
cloistered life such as Black Narcissus or The Nun’s Story or the great The Bells of St. Mary’s. But
neither does von Trotta cater to today’s fashionable anti-Christian
view. Her bias is to spotlight Bingen’s innovative holistic approach to
medicine. Von Trotta’s sophisticated enough not to deny the spiritual
side of Bingen’s study (“First the soul must heal, then the body will
follow.”) Unafraid of her subject’s complexity, von Trotta shows
Bingen’s weaknesses as part of her humanity, as in her attachment to
novice Richardis von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung), who rouses the other,
narcissistic side of Bingen’s will.
Von Trotta examines feminist pride,
egotism and sorority that is spiritual, intellectual and erotic.
Heroizing Bingen as mystical and iconoclastic, von Trotta recalls the
complexity of the Father Grandier figure in Ken Russell’s underrated
1971 The Devils. This is similarly serious political history: Von
Trotta clearly intends Bingen’s prophecies—which risked excommunication
and gave her the reputation of a seer—to establish her as an icon with
Trotta fights her own ambition by attempting to de-romanticize her
story by making it visually dark—not rejoicing in the beauty of life
that Bingen dares in her exultation of nature and of art, as when Bingen
stages a holiday ritualized drama that emphases the physical
attractiveness of the nuns’ play-acting. This hair-flowing scene helps
define the depth of Sukowa’s performance; she’s gained strength since
playing Fassbinder’s Lola in 1982 and she joins the Ingrid
Bergman/Audrey Hepburn tradition of chaste beauty in a wimple—a good
contrast to scenes of wily intelligence and anger.