Movie review: ‘Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen’

Margarethe von Trotta, who helped lead the New German Cinema movement and has been considered one of the world’s premiere feminist filmmakers ever since directing (with then-husband Volker Schlöndorff) 1975’s “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” sheds light — literally and figuratively — on another exceptional woman, 12th century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen, in the superbly rendered and deeply absorbing religious drama “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.”

Reuniting once again with luminous German actress Barbara Sukowa (seen in the director’s “Rosa Luxemburg” and “Rosenstrasse,” among others), Von Trotta, who also wrote “Vision’s” striking screenplay, immerses us into an ancient, cosseted world that feels far removed from today’s reality, yet still manages to echo such ageless concerns as fearing the “different,” challenging tradition and religion’s thorny intersection with political and financial forces. It’s a profound if deliberately paced work (the most conventional “action” occurs when a horse briefly enters the frame) that offers many visual and emotional gifts for patient viewers.

The film follows the often sickly Von Bingen as she is cloistered at age 8, takes her monastic vows at 16, then, upon the death of her spiritual mother (whose strange demise can be best described as “medieval”), takes over as abbess at the harshly patriarchal Disibodenberg monastery, later using her sacred eminence — and not inconsiderable strategic savvy — to found the all-female Convent Rupertsberg. Along the way she becomes renowned for her prophetic (and controversial) godly visions, musical compositions, playwriting, herbal remedies, scientific ardor and devout teachings.

While this stunningly shot picture’s second half turns a bit episodic as it covers the highlights of Von Bingen’s middle life, including her co-dependent relationship with an adoring young protégé (Hannah Herzsprung), it remains an absorbing portrait of a powerful woman well ahead of her time. Sukowa’s performance is never less than compelling as she veers from stern to loving, aggressive to subservient, and practical to mystical in her quest to protect her sisters and advance her various agendas.

“Vision” is a must-see for serious filmgoers.