Gen­uine genuflection

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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

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