Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

She was a proponent of a joyous faith that celebrated the glory of God’s world and embraced knowledge.

The first thing you see in Vision is an enormously bright full moon over a wooded landscape. The next is the candle-lit interior of a church filled with members of a millennial sect praying, prostrating and flagellating themselves as a priest informs them that this is their last day on earth—in fact the last day of earth, period. The first to awake the following morning (spoiler alert: the world did not end in 1000 CE) is a beautiful young girl playing contentedly with her doll. The next is a somewhat older boy who flings open the church door and regards the splendor of the world, most especially of the sun shining brightly in the sky.
It’s a good setup for the story of Hildegard von Bingen, the amazingly talented 12th-century woman who founded an abbey, composed music (70-80 of her compositions survive, one of the largest numbers for any medieval composer) and wrote nine books as well as the first surviving morality play. As presented in Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen she was a proponent of a joyous faith that celebrated the glory of God’s world and embraced knowledge, recoiling from mortification of the flesh and teaching the sisters under her charge how to use herbal medicine to treat the afflicted.
Vision takes a serious and mostly positive view of spirituality without uniformly endorsing the established Church, which is shown as a male-dominated political and business enterprise as much as a keeper of souls. When young Hildegard is deposited at the Benedictine abbey (as a tithe from her family, which had ten children) a monk directs her attention to the crests of families who have made major donations to the order. Later her abilities will be encouraged, in part to bring greater glory to the order, and the politics of the Catholic Church in the 12th century are shown to be every bit as cutthroat as those of any modern government.
As an adult, Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa) is elected magistra (leader) of the nuns; her insistence that the sisters be allowed to vote rather than simply accepting an appointment from the male leadership is the first of her many defiances of authority. When a young nun commits suicide after becoming pregnant, she insists the man involved is equally guilty and determines to found an independent convent, a goal she pursues right up the chain of authority to the Pope himself. When a bright young woman (Hannah Herzspring) arrives at the convent, Hildegard adopts her almost as a disciple and strongly resists later attempts by her wealthy family to move her to a different order. She assembles an expansive library and makes her own impressive contributions as well, recording the mystical visions that had been a part of her life since childhood.
Films about the Middle Ages sometimes take the phrase “the Dark Ages” too literally and portray the life of the times as literally dark (as if the sun were somehow an invention of the 20th century), as well as gloomy (as if people in prior historical periods were pining away for their lack of cell phones and big-screen televisions). Granted I wouldn’t have wanted to have a toothache in that era, but how would anyone living centuries before the invention of anesthesia have felt deprived by its lack?
Director Margarethe von Trotte does not dwell on the deprivations of the times as defined by our 21st century viewpoint, but presents her characters as fully present in their own lives and celebrates both the beauty of the religious life and the glories of the natural world. The visual elements of the film, including Axel Block’s cinematography and Heike Bauersfeld’s production design, are splendid and fully support the director’s vision, as does the soundtrack, which features some of Hildegard’s own compositions. | Sarah Boslaugh


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