Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Beauty and Simplicity
Vision is the best Lord of the Rings movie since, well, The Lord of the Rings.
That’s an absurd and awful thing to say about a film based on the life of a beatified medieval abbess. But it’s a high compliment as well. Vision immerses us in the 12th Century so deeply that we forget we’re watching a period piece. (Well, we almost forget. The hats worn by the soon-to-be Archbishop of Bremen are certainly jarring, though undoubtedly authentic.)
For the uninitiated, as I was prior to seeing the film, the Blessed Hildegard von Bingen (“Blessed” is what the beatified, but not canonized, are called) was a German girl given into the care of the Disibodenberg Abbey at a very young age. There, she came under the tutelage of the venerated “magistera” Jutta, the “head nun,” if you will, at the dual-sex yet gender-segregated abbey. When Jutta dies, Hildegard is chosen as Jutta’s successor, and some time after discloses to Brother Volmar that God reveals truths to her in visions of light.
At Volmar’s encouragement, Hildegard becomes so outspoken and persuasive that she is granted permission to record and publish her visions and other writings. In the wake of a nun’s unwanted pregnancy and suicide, Hildegard is influential enough to win patronage for the construction of a separate monastery for the sisters at St. Rupertsberg near Bingen. Volmar, less intimidated by the woman’s strength than his fellow monks, goes with the nuns to serve as Hildegard’s provost (her right-hand man, in a sense, yet the ordained official qualified to perform sacraments).
The narrative tension in the film is derived from three key relationships. The first of these is a rivalry between Hildegard and Jutta—not von Sponheim, Hildegard’s mentor, but a contemporary of Hildegard’s and namesake of von Sponheim. As one might expect, the younger Jutta resents the attention paid to Hildegard in her stead, and the strained relationship between the two nuns fuels much of the conflict through the first two thirds of the movie.
The second key relationship is that of Hildegard with Abbot Kuno. He is really a modern audience’s entrée into the significance of Hildegard’s ministry, as he represents everything that is patriarchal, prejudicial, classically stodgy, and corrupt. Kuno is really what we expect from cloistered life, based on stereotypes like those found in The Name of the Rose, for instance. You can just imagine what Kuno would do with altar boys and a whip. So Hildegard’s progressiveness, enlightenment, and relative purity shine like bright lights in contrast to the monastic darkness we’ve (rather stupidly and blithely) come to expect.
Third, Hildegard unwisely establishes an unhealthy bond with a novice, Richardis von Stade, the daughter of a baroness who has become drawn to Hildegard’s writing. (As enlightened as Hildegard may have been, she apparently was not the one who first discovered the idea of “boundaries.”) As time progresses, it becomes clear that Richardis’ devotion is less than pure—and that Hildegard has uses in mind for Richardis other than ministry.
Aside from these relationships, and the occasional intrusion of trances and visions into von Bingen’s cloistered life, Vision is not a story in which much “happens.” But the sumptuousness with which the story is told, and the depth and quality of the performances, holds an audience’s attention nevertheless. The film communicates the richness and vitality possible in the monastic life without ever becoming particularly spiritual or preachy. Its primary value is almost secular: celebrating the life of a strong woman who found a way to both communicate with God and apply truth to the world around her in extremely practical, beautiful, and helpful ways.
For me, as you may gather from my review, the film is exceedingly beneficial as education.
Oh, if learning was always this exquisite, if not particularly passionate.
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen is unrated. I doubt it would garner higher than a PG from the MPAA, though I don’t know for what. Go ahead. Consider it G. Just don’t expect children, or many adults, to pay attention.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Greg attended a press screening of Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen.