Creating a film about a medieval nun (especially one without the words “naughty,” “nasty” or “naked” preceding it) is likely a form of cinematic suicide. The 18-25 male demographic would much rather watch one of Angelina Jolie’s gun-toting incarnations — preferably the one that wears hot pants.
German writer/director Margarethe von Trotta has never cared much about the aforementioned demographic. Instead, her film Vision , a biopic about 12th century femi-nun Hildegard von Bingen, feels like a labor of love. Sure, the movie is flawed — it’s dry (after all, nuns aren’t known as a fun-loving bunch), and the dialog is a little stilted. But her story about an important 1000-year-old writer, philosopher and female voice is beautifully rendered and well acted, not to mention historically significant.
The movie begins with little Hildegard von Bingen being given to the church like so much tuna casserole at a Lutheran potluck. Jutta (Lena Stolze) takes her in, introducing her to her other “daughter” Jutta, who is Hildegard’s age. The wise matronly nun spends the following years teaching her charges by day and flagellating herself to an early grave by night. It’s a brutal, stark existence, and Jutta’s teachings of love amid this backdrop are a strange juxtaposition.
Years later, Jutta dies, and Hildegard (now played by Barbara Sukowa, a longtime fixture in German theater) replaces her as magistra, or head nun. Soon after, Hildegard reveals that she’s been having visions of a living light, a controversial revelation that sends ripples through the male-dominated Catholic church.
Von Trotta isn’t concerned with explaining her visions, whether they’re produced by moldy rye bread, her consumption of wormwood wine or old-fashioned hysteria. Instead, the crux of the film’s tension comes from Hildegard’s political dealings with her male counterparts and her interpersonal relationships, including a young nun named Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). It’s these less historically important moments (the nature of Hildegard and Richardis’s relationship, the envy or scorn of the other nuns within the cloister) when Von Trotta shines.
The film’s external point of view (and vows of silence), effectively keeps the audience out of the main character’s thoughts. Sukowa plays Hildegard with a curious dichotomy — for most of the film she strides about with an understated assurance, the result of her being chosen by God. But she occasionally pitches a hissy fit, melodramatically prostrating herself on cold stone floors. Despite its “Masterpiece Theater” feel, Vision is a portrait of an emotionally stunted genius and the oppressive conditions that produced her.