Among medievalists Hildegard of Bingen has long been a figure of note—the twelfth-century nun was a mystic, a poet, a composer, a natural philosopher and a physician, as well as an expert ecclesiastical administrator. In this film by Margarethe von Trotta she also becomes a proto-feminist figure, a woman who made her way to a position of great authority and renown in a world even more male-dominated than ours. Of course, for dramatic purposes she remains a creature of passion as well as reason, and at some points her very humanity proves dangerous to her.
As “Vision” begins, we witness Hildegard’s presentation by her parents to the Benedictine convent at Disibodenberg as a child, and her placement in the care of the older nun Jutta. But the screenplay quickly shifts ahead thirty years to Jutta’s death and Hildegard’s selection as magistra of the nuns—at her insistence by election of the sisters rather than by choice of their male superior. The remainder of the plot revolves around her increasing prominence, as an artist, scholar, and abbess but especially as a mystic whose visions, after some initial skepticism, are accepted by ecclesiastical authorities (and political figures) as divine in origin. But there are other threads, including a continuing strained relationship with another nun who entered the order with her and envies her advancement, and Hildegard’s decision to seek permission to remove the nuns to a new, independent convent at Rupertsberg—a difficult transition that causes problems with her immediate superiors and dissent within the community. The latter episode is connected with another involving a member of the community who engages in sex with a monk and kills herself after her pregnancy is revealed—the event that causes Hildegard to seek to move her group.
But the chief dramatic focus concerns Hildegard’s affection for a younger woman, Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), who joins the Order out of admiration for Hildegard and becomes her confidant and closest friend. Von Trotta suggests nothing improper in their relationship, but though chaste it nonetheless nearly causes Hildegard’s undoing when after some years Richardis’ brother secures a position of headship in another nunnery for his sister and Hildegard adamantly refuses to agree to her translation.
Von Trotta’s script is loosely based on the historical evidence—Hildegard’s own writings, along with a contemporary biography—but interprets it in a fashion that aligns with modern feminist sensibilities. Her Hildegard is decidedly not a woman manipulated by the male-dominated world of her time; rather she’s a woman who uses her talent, and her own skill at manipulation, to triumph in that gender-hostile environment. (It’s left an open question whether her visions are divinely inspired or a tactic, and equally uncertain whether her bouts of illness are feigned or real.) And it closes on an earth-shaking note, when Hildegard announces her intention to go into the world and preach—something unheard-of for a woman in twelfth-century Europe. “Vision” uses Hildegard as the model of the woman who, whatever her time, strains against the limitations that society imposes on her simply by reason of her sex.
Once you accept the perspective of the picture, it’s a fairly impressive piece of work—visually as ascetic as its subject, with stark sets and simple costumes set against an apparently pristine natural background. (To be sure, it avoids depicting the grubbiness of the era, even in the scenes showing the building of Hildegard’s new convent, but then the action is located among the social elite of the time.) And Barbara Sukowa, with a touch of Katharine Hepburn to her manner, makes a daunting, even haughty heroine. Heino Ferch cuts an amiable figure as the monk who supports her from the earliest days. But Hannah Herzsprung comes across a bit too contemporary as Richardis, however.
The title of Von Trotta’s film may actually refer more to the vision her Hildegard has of the future of liberated women than to the visions the historical Hildegard supposedly had in which the divine will was revealed. But given that, it’s a reasonably effective presentation of the director’s feminist view of a fascinating medieval figure, though one that’s very deliberate in pacing and visually quite severe.