Monday, December 13, 2010

Vision: this nun won't take nein for an answer

The titular 12th century Benedictine magistra and mystic of writer/director Margarethe von Trotta’s
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen was a preternatural renaissance woman of the highest order, writing plays, botanical and theological texts, composing music, and founding an independent, all-woman monastery on her way to canonization, feminist revisionism and cinematic stardom. While scandalizing her peers, she was deft in her dealings with both church and state. But she was human like anybody else and suffered from longings and envy, which allows Vision to see-saw engagingly between the steady accumulation of its protagonist’s accomplishments and her occasional surrender to overwhelming emotions.

There’s a superfluous and fairly silly prologue involving a millenarian sect gathering to mark the last night of the first millennium and its implicit apocalypse. But the sun insistently rises the next morning and the world’s stage is set for von Bingen’s entrance… about 98 years later. Von Trotta quickly dramatizes von Bingen’s childhood cloistering before darting ahead 30 years to the moment when she assumes the role that will facilitate her destiny as maverick and renown polymath. Around this point we catch a glimpse of von Bingen’s visions, replete with sudden zooms into our heroine’s supernaturally blue eyes and psychedelic cloud formations. It would seem advisable to regard such religious experiences as best left to the imagination, but von Trotta’s approach to this material generally feels ambivalent about whether to mime it’s subject’s austerity or follow Ken Russell’s example as to how to shoot nuns: on the one hand Vision is almost elliptical in its efficient rendering of biographical bullet points; on the other it employs expressionistic hand-held camerawork and contemporaneous but decidedly non-diegetic choral music that could furnish several Omen sequels.

“God loves beauty,” declares von Bingen in
Vision, and the proof is manifested in von Bingen herself, embodied here by the positively ageless Barbara Sukowa in her fifth collaboration with von Trotta, the pair of them having forged their careers four decades back as important figures in the New German Cinema. Sukowa makes an agreeably radiant visionary, though her beauty doesn’t distract from the character’s chaste integrity. For secular viewers at least, Vision will feel most alive when von Bingen throws a bit of a tantrum upon discovering that her young protégée, also rather fetching, will be leaving her for another convent. There’s nothing beyond our own suspicions to imply anything erotic transpiring between the two during those long, lonely Dark Age nights, but perhaps there’s no harm in us having our own visions of transgression nonetheless.

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