Vision – From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

Barbara Sukowa as Hildegard von Bingen and Heino Ferch as Brother Volmar in VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta. A Zeitgeist Films release.

vision posterSeen on July 5, 2016 @ National Arts Festival, Grahamstown

We are about to enter the new millennium. The end of the world is near. A group of believers is led in a communal act of penance. The only thing left is to pray and confess sins, because tomorrow will be no more.

This is the sombre opening of Vision.

But then a new morning dawns and the expected judgement day arrives with a bright sunlight that does herald a new day.

A bright child is brought to a monastery to be taught by the abbess whose reputation as a mother and teacher is unquestioned. And so the young Hildegard is introduced to all the wisdom her childhood can take in. This kind new mother shares her extensive knowledge about stones, herbs and the spiritual life lavishing a lot of love on the young girl. But the soon to be novice has to learn to subdue envy as another girl that was entrusted to mother before Hildegard arrived feels Hildegard is favoured. The kindness and love bestowed by the mother is difficult to comprehend in light of the fierce self flagellation Hildegard one night witnesses when she is awoken from her sleep.

Not long after the two young ladies have taking their vows,  mother is ready to meet her Bridegroom. When the two sisters prepare her body for burial they discover to their horror and surprise an iron belt that has deeply cut into the flesh. It is hard to rhyme this self flaggelation with all the other wisdom by which the abbess guided the novices in the pursuit of the Holy.

Hildegard is appointed as the new abbess and continues her search for knowledge and shares it with the female members of the convent. We see a sisterhood thrive with joy, laughter, wit and wisdom, humility and determination. Conscious of her failing health (which even as a child caused her to stay in bed for days at times) we see Hildegard struggling with her vocation and the men in power and authority.

This bodily suffering and powerplays, revelations, holiness of course make up the life of a saint and director Margarette von Trotta makes a strong case for a woman that was way ahead of her time, dealt with patriachy and accumulated wisdom and strength at many terrains that still attract people today.

Barbara Sukowa excellently portrays Hildegard von Bingen as a spiritual mother with wisdom and with, with eyes fixed on heaven and feet grounded in reality, leaving room for the watcher to judge on the integrity of a life, not neglecting the human side of saint when tension, envy and a deep love for all things find their way.

Purity contrasts with the power hungry and greed of most men in the immediate vicinity of Hildegard, mostly embodied by Abbot Kuno. Alexander Held is an excellent villain, but a bit one dimensional. But not all man appear to be like that. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa grants much support even when Hildegard is convinced the sisters need their own monastery (after a young sister commits suicide after getting pregnant). The building of a new community is like a act of faith, starting from scratch, but under the insightful and courageous leadership of Hildegard. Brother Volmar (the very sympathetic Heino Ferch) remains loyal throughout in his support of the sisters and journeys with them to become their confession father.

The widescreen shots, mostly in the two monasteries and forest and the use of light underscore the broad perspective and intimate look into the life of a saint. The film creates a memorable vision of a Love and Life infused live.

Vision opens a door into the remarkable life and legacy of a woman who embraced what was entrusted to her and takes us into some of the internal and external struggles that come with pursuing her vision, but also leaves a lot of doors unopened as it touches briefly on the many aspects of Hildegard’s life as spiritual director, musician, healer, mystic, woman, friend, believer.