As far as résumés go, Hildegard ofBingen was definitely an overachiever. She composed music, was a mystic, and wrote poetry, plays and books on philosophy, medicine and human reproduction. And she happened to do all this in the 12th century while serving as a Benedictine nun. Actually, she was the abbess. Which makes Hildegard a pioneering feminist in filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta's eyes. Fair enough. Theextraordinary nun is clearly ripe for a biopic, a renaissance woman long before there ever was a Renaissance.
The daughter of a wealthy German family, Hildegard is sent to the cloister as a young girl and becomes the magistra's favorite. Quickly rising through the ranks, she inherits her mentor's role and soon begins to experience divine "visions" (depicted as camera-induced vertigo). At first, the chauvinistic monks doubt her claims, but the more senior clerics do not, allowing her to publish her communiqués from God. And what does the Almighty have to say? That the grim practice of self-flagellation and embrace of suffering is wrong, that God loves beauty, justice and rewards those who seek knowledge. Add humanism to Hildegard's before-her-time accomplishments.
Von Trotta's approach is respectful and meditative but too opaque. Her movie leans heavily on what Hildegard did and not enough on who she was. Church politics are laid bare, but little examination or insight is given to this intriguing woman's visions, foibles or personality. I understand that records from the 1100s are spotty, but cinema demands some attempt at drama — and VonTrotta's handsomely mounted movie has little to none. At best, the mystic's relationships with the other nuns, particularly a childhood friend (Lena Stolze) and overeager pupil (Hannah Herzsprung), are neurotic, even hypocritical. Similarly, Hildegard's eventual move to establish her own abbey causes some minor discord, but is resolved too hastily.
When filmmakers fail to deliver the complexities of character, it is hoped that the actor will step in and provide. Unfortunately, Barbara Sukowa's inscrutably detached performance fails to fill the gap. The veteran actress has forbidding presence to burn but offers fewcracks in Von Trotta's historically faithful armor.
Where the film succeeds is in its depictions of 12th century life. Von Trotta creates a believably tangible place filled with culture, passion, and politics, all muted by the simplicity of the time. The movie uses much of Hildegard's music for its soundtrack, the surviving convents for its setting, and a reliance on candles and torch light for interior illumination. All provide for a sumptuously atmospheric production. If Von Trotta had invested half as much effort in providing this remarkable nun's life with emotional drama and historical context, Visions might have lived up to its title.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit;313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 4-5, and at 2 p.m.Sunday, Feb. 6.