At the time of the Crusades, corporal punishment in religious orders was commonplace. This self-punishment sometimes consisted of wearing a tight, spiked belt called a cilice, the barbs of which dug into the flesh and caused excruciating pain. Without likening “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen” to exactly the kind of agony that a cilice would elicit, suffice it to say the film’s length and meandering plotline bring forth a similar sense of interminable, unbearable discomfort.

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

At the Michigan
Zeitgeist

“Vision,” a subtitled German-language film written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, intricately and listlessly weaves the account of real-life Catholic abbess and canonized saint Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa, “The Invention of the Curried Sausage”). Set in a German monastery about 900 years ago, the film provides a glimpse into the daily lives of some of the most pious people in the world without assuming the role of a documentary. However, the film never provides any background on von Bingen or why she deserves to have a movie made about her in the first place, so the result is a dark, drawn-out picture without any sense of purpose or resolution.

Hildegard von Bingen is acknowledged in real life as a venerable philosopher, Christian mystic, composer, writer and visionary. But the film instead focuses almost entirely on the visions she experienced since early childhood — composed of some vague, recurring “living light” — naturally prompting her family to leave her at a monastery of monks and nuns at the age of eight. There, she is given to an older nun named Jutta (Mareile Blendl, “Zwei Manner und ein Baby”), a woman who is already entrusted to be the mother of another young girl, also named Jutta. Years pass and Jutta Sr. eventually dies, leaving von Bingen to the post of abbess, which she accepts with chagrin. Meanwhile, Jutta Jr. (Lena Stoltz, “Ein Teil von mir”) spends her time being jealous of the success of her “sister” within the religious community, seemingly forgetting the lesson that their “mother” taught them: “Envy is ugly and misshapen.”

Envy may be ugly and misshapen, but to von Bingen, narcissism certainly is not. She is obsessed, somewhat creepily, with a young nun named Richardus von Stade (Hannah Herzsprung, “The Reader”) who comes to the monastery with the sole purpose of dogging after von Bingen until the day she dies — something she does extremely well. Besides her selfish attachment to von Stade, von Bingen’s self-serving behavior continues after one of her visions tells her to write down all she sees and hears, which soon turns into an all-consuming obsession which takes up everyone’s time. From here, the movie continues in its forward march of drudgery, teasing the audience with the promise of von Bingen’s death and a conclusion to the film, only to zoom in on a flutter of an eyelid, resurrecting her for another 45 minutes. At this point, the only saving grace for the film might be the performances, but even those fall disappointingly flat. The only breaks from the monotony are the interactions between von Bingen and her monk “friend” Volmar (Heino Ferch, “Run Lola Run”), even if their mouth-kissing is a little uncomfortable to watch.

However, the film does have some surprising relevance to modern times. Von Bingen is often called the “devil” because of her visions and her reliance on pagan modes of healing such as herbs and crystals, demonstrating humanity’s unfailing fear of the unknown. Moreover, the double standard set against women that still exists today is embodied in a scenario between a few canoodlers in the cloister: After a young nun breaks her vow of chastity with a certain young monk and subsequently takes her own life when ordered to leave the hermitage, the monk in charge of the monastery damns her to hell, whereas he holds no grudge against the boy who got her in trouble. Some things never change.

All in all, audience members might leave the theater asking themselves if they’ve actually just seen a movie. Only saint aficionados will be able to connect with the story in a religious sense at all — save for drawing a metaphor between the lengthy, interminable plotline and Purgatory.

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