Author: Kiley, Brendan
Date published: November 18, 2010
dir. Margarethe von Trotta
German actress Barbara Sukowa has a face so white and cold and beveled, it could have been carved from a glacier. At least that's how writer/director Margarethe von Trotta makes her look in Vision, a slow biography of 12th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen and a celebration of Sukowa's icy face.
Hildegard has become an object of fascination for 20th-century feminist scholars, since she did a lot of things ladies weren't doing in the 1100s: She wrote plays and music and theology, had visions (Oliver Sacks thought they were just migraines), doctored people with roots and herbs, ran a Benedictine abbey, and generally did what she thought best, even when her idea of "best" clashed with tradition and/or the men running the show around her.
Medieval monasteries are also 20th-century objects of fascination. They're cold, drippy labyrinths where candlelight sputters against the stones and human schemes are played out in the name of the Lord. But in the canon of monastic-minded films, from Becket (a fucking fabulous movie from 1964 starring Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole) to The Name of the Rose, Vision is straightforward almost to a fault. Hildegard arrives at the Benedictine cloister as a little girl, grows up, shows leadership, has her visions, makes friends with some monks and enemies with others, heals the sick, teaches her ladies botany, deals with the politics of envy and competition endemic to all hierarchal organizations (none of it particularly dramatic), and gets up the gumption to strike out on her own with the nuns once one of them becomes pregnant (presumably by a monk).
This pregnancy is the dramatic high point of the film, as Hildegard, laid up with a visionmigraine and sipping "wormwood wine," expels the pregnant sister from their Benedictine order. The sister freaks, eats a poisonous mushroom, and is dead by sunrise. The woman is dead, but the guilty monk lives on in secrecy-and so the cruelty of medieval sexual politics (and a vision) inspires Hildegard to pack up her ladies and move. Sisters doing it for themselves.
All in all, Vision is as icy and beautiful as Barbara Sukowa's face. No matter how von Trotta points her cameras (from below, from above, far away, close-up), they cannot get intimate with their subjects. Hildegard was a woman in the world, but not of it-whatever human heat coursed through her veins remains undiscovered. BRENDAN KILEY