IVision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, biopic, not rated, The Screen, in German with subtitles, 2.5 chiles “I’ve been given to God as a gift,” 8-year-old Hildegard tells Jutta von Sponheim (Mareile Blendl), the magistra at the monastery to which her parents have just committed her for life.
In Margarethe von Trotta’s movie, it is not the gift that keeps on giving. This stiff-kneed biography of Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century nun and visionary, has a solemn earnestness, but it doesn’t breathe enough life into its subject. It’s not that Barbara Sukowa plays the iconic Hildegard as a one-note character. Sukowa is an actress of considerable power and authority. She hits a lot of notes. It’s just that in the context of this movie, the notes don’t reverberate very much.
Von Trotta signals her attitude toward religious superstition when she opens with a prologue set on the eve of Y1K. As the millennium approaches, a priest thunders that the world is at an end and that the sun will never rise again. The next morning, lo and behold, the sun comes up. It’s a blow for the faithful. It may bring to mind the end-of-the-world sketch from the great 1960s satiric revue Beyond the Fringe, in which Peter Cook reacts to another failed doomsday prediction with a shrug: “Never mind, same time tomorrow. We must get a winner one day.”
After little Hildegard is dropped off at the Disibodenberg monastery, a scene that plays as if it’s about a fairly self-assured child going to sleep-away camp, there arises a conflict that has her tussling over a slate with another girl. “Envy is ugly and misshapen,” their mother figure, Jutta, tells them as she snatches it away. “Love is the greatest power given by God.”
Jump to 30 years later, with Jutta on her deathbed. We quickly see that Hildegard has taken that mantra to heart, but the other girl, also named Jutta (Lena Stolze), has not. When the dying nun asks for time alone with Hildegard, the younger Jutta seethes with envy. “Remember what our mother taught us,” Hildegard says, and Jutta Jr. retorts in effect that mother always liked you best.
In truth, Hildegard has very little to be envious of. She inherits the position of magistra but only after standing up to the authoritarian Abbot Kuno (Alexander Held) and insisting that the matter be put to a vote of the sisters. “It is our divine right to decide our fate,” she tells the abbot, striking a blow for democracy and feminism in one defiant medieval swoop.
But whom else would you choose for the job? Hildegard has absorbed all the learning and wisdom of the saintly Jutta and then some. She teaches the sisters the healing properties of herbs. She is an avid reader and devours all the classics and scriptures she can get her eager hands on. She’s a musician and composer who believes in the healing properties of music. She’s a humanist who abhors the monks’ practice of self-flagellation and preaches the positive side of God’s love. She’s a philosopher, a writer, a poet, a playwright, a naturalist, a holistic healer, a tough infighting politician, and a prototypical feminist symbol.
Above all else, she’s a visionary. “Since I was 3 years old, I have seen visions,” she tells her confessor and confidant, the patient, sympathetic monk Volmar (Heino Ferch). The first we see of this phenomenon is a giant neon eye that appears to her in the sky. She never describes her visions to others with this kind of representational specificity, but she tells of a bright, overwhelming light that is accompanied by a divine voice enunciating prophecy, teachings, and commands. “I am to warn mankind,” she reports, “to help him find his way back to God.”
Kuno is skeptical when told of these visions, but the scheming abbot soon sees the advantage in having a bona fide visionary under his monastic roof. It could bring a boom in tourism and put a feather in his cap. So he gets on board. Others in the church hierarchy with less to gain are not so hospitable, but a well-placed letter from Hildegard to the venerable abbot Bernard of Clairvaux does the trick, and she is on her way to fame and power. And when one of the sisters becomes pregnant, Hildegard demands and eventually wins permission to leave Disibodenberg and build her own cloister at Rupertsberg.
Von Trotta doesn’t really take sides on the issue of the validity of Hildegard’s supernatural gift, although there’s a suggestion that a coma she goes into when denied permission to build her nunnery is the spiritual equivalent of holding her breath till she gets what she wants.
Aside from the issues of sexuality that are overtly raised, there is the implied question of the (probably) suppressed lesbianism that can arise under these cloistered circumstances. A young novice, Richardis (Hannah Herzprung) develops a passionate attachment to Hildegard that the older woman reciprocates, and when circumstances arise to pry them apart there is jealousy and anguish on a grand romantic scale. The movie does not go into the historical Hildegard’s warnings against lesbianism, or her views on masturbation, which are similar to Christine O’Donnell’s.
Von Bingen appears to have been a remarkable woman of extraordinary accomplishment for any time — and especially under the male-centric system of the era in which she lived. Though she never officially made sainthood (she achieved beatification), she exerts a powerful influence on both religious and secular fronts today. But this is not the movie to do full honor to this complex and fascinating woman. Hildegard’s many accomplishments included beautiful illumination. Von Trotta’s movie is beautiful to look at, but it fails to illuminate.
And then there were nuns: Barbara Sukowa with Paula Kalenberg; top, Sunnyi Melles