June 16, 2011

Vision - Seeing Darkly, Seeing Clearly

Movie review of "Vision" (2010, Zeitgeist Films) 
by Rev. John-Brian Paprock

As I contemplated the messages of the historical film “Vision” about Hildegard von Bingen I was reminded of the New Testament scripture where St. Paul writes: "I saw through a glass darkly and then face to face."

It wasn't until the 1980s that I heard of Hildegard beyond obscure quotes by a few self-proclaimed mystics and spiritual progressives that felt religion was a stifling influence on their universal spirituality.  Indeed, it seems that Hildegard may have been a kindred spirit from an earlier time to those folks.  Perhaps, it is that Hildegard was a woman ahead of her time. Margarethe von Trotta, who wrote and directed the truly historic work of "Vision," reveals Hildgegard as a liberated, intelligent women who is clearly smarter than the men of authority in the church. She is a devout and dedicated cloistered 12th Century German Benedictine nun who is uniquely multi-talented and could easily be among the generation of  the Renaissance, except she was born too early... and she was a woman.  

Her life story is portrayed as an adventure into that era before the Reformation and before the Final Crusades, but after the divisive religious battle over that has divided East and West ever since.  The movie opens, inexplicably although perhaps with great symbolism, at the end of the first millennium with doomed faithful praying in an ancient church praying for God's mercy.  After a priest gives a final absolution for those gathered, the camera pans across the bodies of the faithful lying on the floor of the church after the candles have burned out. In that dim light, a girl, who is not identified in the movie and can be easily confused for Hildegard herself except that this happened almost a century before she was born, steps over the bodies and walks to a seeping light coming under the door. With the help of a boy (foreshadowing of Brother Volmar, perhaps), they open the church doors to a beautiful morning sun. The sleeping repentant faithful rise to meet the new day. 

This opening, beautifully filmed and very much in the flavor of von Trotta's mentor - Ingmar Bergmann, seems to be intended as a metaphor for the underlying theme of the movie.  The European church was in fear of the end, being seiged by superficiality and bullies within, growing powerful and contrary teachings of enemies from middle and northern Europe, and Islamic Ottoman Empire moving from the Holy Land to Mediterranean holds as far west as Spain, driving the Eastern Church into isolation and martyrdom. In every sense of the word, this famed 12th-century Benedictine nun was a salve to heal the church, but her healing was rejected over and over again.

Hildegard von Bingen was a Christian mystic, author, counselor, naturalist, scientist, philosopher, physician, herbalist, poet, channeller, visionary, and composer that, in 1233,  Pope Gregory IX initiated a process for canonizing her but, for formal and logistic reasons, was never completed.  The movie, however, ends at the second or the third (maybe the fourth) leg of her long life and ministry as a Catholic religious trying to bring enlightenment to everyone before a woman could be taken seriously and long before Pope Gregort IX's efforts to have her regarded as a saint.

“Vision” is filmed with incredible attention to historic details, including the intracacies of the conflicting values of monastic vows and the rich benefactors which sought worldly blessings for their temporal wealth.  It shows Hidlegard in constant contrariness, yet portrayed and directed with a grace that brings even the most chauvenistic viewer into sympathy, cheering for her accomplishments and mourning at her losses. Post-Modern human society may have grown beyond the general need for the mortification of the flesh so common in the era of Hildegard that we instinctively embrace Hildegard who is also clearly disgusted with the morbid rituals of self-flagellation and self-torture and extreme fasting.

Barbara Sukowa portrays Hildegard as a loving and passionate lover of nature and humanity, who is moved by intense visions that she can barely describe and who is driven with an insatiable curiousity that brings her to accumulate a library envious on the Great Library of Alexandria.

There is a obvious contrast intended in the dingy enviroment of the initial cloister lorded over by monks who protect each other by calling womanly beauty a trick of the devil and Hildegard's intelligence proof of her allegiance to him.  Save one. She does have a constant supporter in Brother Volmar (played by Heino Ferch), a monk and priest who helps in the publishing of her controversial visions. There is a honest plutonic relationship between them that reminds one of Zefferelli's "Brother Son, Sister Moon" where love and sexuality are almost opposites in a spectrum of affection and loyalty.

However, Margarethe von Trotta leaves the intense passions and curious sexual tensions for Hildegard's closest female companions.  In fact, von Trotta creates a relationship triangle between Hildegard's childhood best friend, Jutta (played with subtly and grace by Lena Stolze) who has walked through the steps of the monastic order with Hildegard, and a charismatic teen-aged novice, Richardis von Stade (played beautifully by Hannah Herzsprung) who becomes Hildegard's constant companion. Interestingly, von Trotta reminds us throughout the movie, that one of the greatest sins of that era is envy - not limited to vanity and power, but to profundity and wisdom, to love and intimacy. Envy binds childhood friends in an intimacy that later is entangled, perhaps entrapped, by the charismatic teenager Ricardis.

On the DVD interview, von Trotta proclaims, with a wry smile, that these intense female relationships are clear from Hildegard's letters - although in a modern society tolerant of various lifestyles, it seems she is trying too hard not to offend, letting the movie reach the broadest audience. Perhaps this is a wise tactic because the movie is greater than any bit of gossip and inuendo. Like Hildegard herself, von Trotta makes her point by bringing us to the painful aloneness of women of that time, showing us how deep affections can affect even the most saintly.  Here, in these ambiguous female relationships, von Trotta lets Hildegard be her most human, most vulnerable, most anguished. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the beautiful music that is the score of the movie - all written by Hildegard, who composed Gregorian chants and a lyrical drama, “Ordo Virtutum,” which is excerpted in a scene with the nuns, frolicing in silk gowns and jewels (as they were allowed to do on certain holidays).

The movie is a great addition to spiritual and religious movies that bring historic figures with moral authority and spiritual power into our lives and into our homes. Although at times cynical of wordly ways and at other times curiously obtuse in clarifying conflicting values under the direction of visionary certitude, there is an honesty that won't allow everything to be resolved, or explained, or forgiven.  Nevertheless, and seemingly with more lives than an alley cat, "Vision," like Hildegard, rises from her death bed of infirmity and doubt, moved with compassion and purpose, to reach us in the 21st Century.

"Vision" is New German Cinema production released by Zeitgeist Films now available on DVD. Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta; director of photography, Axel Block; edited by Corina Dietz; music by Chris Heyne, original compositions by Hildegard von Bingen; art direction by Heike Bauersfeld; costumes by Ursula Welter; produced by Markus Zimmer. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is not rated. It is in German with Englsih subtitles. Starring Barbara Sukowa (as Hildegard von Bingen), Heino Ferch (as Brother Volmar), Hannah Herzsprung (as Richardis von Stade), Alexander Held (as Abbot Kuno), Lena Stolze (as Jutta) and Sunnyi Melles (as Richardis’s Mother).

John-Brian recommends these movies on DVD that have similar theme:

"Brother Son, Sister Moon" - Zefirelli's 1972 film about St Francis of Assisi, another 12th Century saint who struggled against the hypocrisy of church leadership.

"Becket" - The 1964 film about the 12th Century Archbishop of Cantebury, Thomas Becket, portrayed brilliantly by Sir Richard Burton with a wonderful performance by Peter O'Toole as King Henry II.
"The Passion of St. Joan of Arc" Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent masterpiece about the 15th Century saint, who also appears to be a champion of women's power and . The Criterion Collection DVD is scored with original music intended for the film. Truly stunning as a film and as a portrayal of one of the most revered saints.

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