Monday, October 11, 2010

Margarethe von Trotta's VISION of Hildegard von Bingen opens at Film Forum

What in the world is going on in VISION? Margarethe von Trotta's ode to the 12th Century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen occupies the crossroads of hagiography and nunsploitation (quite classy, low-key nunsploitation, I'll give it that), and the resulting movie is something akin to Classics Illustrated meets the Sunday School pageant. (There's even a cute little musical number in the middle of it all, in which a priest plays the devil while a nun wears "street clothes" -- to the dismay of her superiors.)

Hildegard (the nun, not the singer/actress) was certainly ahead of her time. Composing Gregorian chants, making discoveries in botany and herbal medicine, writing plays and poetry, not to mention having visions from god telling her how to interpret scriptures (I'm on her side, as to those interpretations), she was the Renaissance woman non-pareil -- a couple of centuries early, to boot. So there is certainly a good tale to be told here, one that might take up an entire 8- or 12-hour mini-series, rather than the 111-minute movie that von Trotta (shown above) has given us.

Indeed, there is a simple, fable-like quality to the movie that carries it along for awhile, and the subjects tackled by the screenplay (written by von Trotta) includes everything from mothering to leaving the male-centric monastery (to start an independent abbey for nuns), sex education, political machinations and betrayal. Because, going into the movie, I knew little about this "visionary" nun, I was perfectly content to sit in the theater and drink up her story. After awhile, though, I began to look for some depth, quirkiness and... well... reality. Instead, we get what looks like a Disney movie, were Disney currently more interested in nuns than horses. Events seem rushed and under-served, and characters even more so. Of course, there's a lot to cover, but still...

TrustMovies has often been a fan of von Trotta's work (Rosenstrasse, Rosa Luxemberg and what little else we've been able to see of it over here), and he imagines he'll always be a fan of the film's lead actress Barbara Sukowa (from Lola to Zentropa and more), who is shown two photos above, center, ministering, and on the poster at top. This lady, who now lives in Brooklyn and has probably done as much movie and TV work in America as in her native Germany, does everything she can with her role, given the strictures of the screenplay. In addition to Sukowa, the cast includes the always fine Heino Ferch (Downfall, The Tunnel) as Hildegard's main (church) man and the versatile Hannah Herzsprung (shown above, from the The Baader/Meinhof Complex and Four Minutes) as the young novitiate who catches Hildy's eye (no worries: this is chaste nunsploitation).

The performances, from Sukowa's downward are all fine, and the camera-work captures so much beauty that you can revel in the greenery of nature (above) and the lovely compositions of the cloistered nuns (below). When it's all over, you'll have admired the splendor and stateliness of the film but are left wondering -- where are its guts?

Vision, from Zeitgeist Films, opens this Wednesday, October 13, in New York City at Film Forum.  You can find upcoming playdates, with cities and theaters, here.

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