Aside from the obvious power of Barbara Sukowa's central performance, much of what is best lies just beneath the surface.

Aside from the obvious power of Barbara Sukowa’s central performance, much of what is best in Margarethe von Trotta’s “Vision” lies just beneath the surface. Entirely of a piece with the writer-director’s various feminist-angled dramas, historical and otherwise, the film exalts the diverse accomplishments of the 12th-century Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen in a manner that is deeply serious but not austere in the Dreyer or Bresson mold. The very nature of the subject will limit commercial options to the rarefied art realm, theatrically and otherwise.

Outwardly, the picture examines what it took for a nun to dramatically expand her range of interests and activities into such realms as holistic medicine, scientific inquiry, music and drama, in addition to being sanctioned for expressing her “visions” of the Lord’s word, at a time when women of the cloth were not even allowed to preach. If secular as well as religious sainthood were possible, von Trotta would surely advance her film as a nomination brief in both categories.

Often angering the brothers at the Disibodenberg cloister by disputing their authority, Hildegard (Sukowa, in her fifth film with the director) does whatever it takes to get her way. This is a woman with a very special feel for how the levers of power work within the church hierarchy and, in quietly suggesting that she may have resorted to such grand subterfuges as feigning illness and near-death to achieve her ends, von Trotta would seem to be indicating, and endorsing, the “by any manipulation necessary” approach that her heroine — and, by extension, any woman — was obliged to employ.

Cheekily beginning with a brief prologue showing how the end-of-the-world predictions of certain fin de millennium Christians proved unreliable, this episodic presentation of the life of a woman who lived 81 years jumps from her being “given to God as a gift” to the order at a young age to, 30 years later, being elected magistra. Setting herself apart from sisterly docility by her thirst for the wisdom of the ancients, interest in being at one with nature, and disdain for the locally popular sport of self-flagellation, Hildegard really puts the abbot’s rosary in knots by announcing that she receives messages from God via clarifying visions.

Forced to present her case before a distinctly unsympathetic panel, the fearless and articulate Hildegard prevails by appealing to the pope himself. This emboldens her to further outrageous behavior, such as, in the wake of one novitiate’s shocking pregnancy, breaking away to establish her own cloister so her nuns can live apart from male contact.

Her great love and, eventually, Achilles heel turns out to be her young protege. The lovely, teenage Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung) is like an unbroken colt at first, sprinting around and spinning about in a way that makes you think the other nuns will, at any second, break into a chorus of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” But Richardis eventually becomes Hildegard’s closest confidante and imagined successor, just as Hildegard was for the magistra who raised her. When, after many years, Richardis is posted elsewhere, a fierce battle and eventual trauma ensue. Hildegard’s late life story stirringly shows the breaking of yet one more barrier to women’s usefulness in the church.

For all her admiration for her subject’s bravery and intellectual adventurousness, von Trotta remains uncommitted when it comes to buying her religious utterances. Hildegard’s verbalizations of her visions mostly consist of doctrinal embroidery, insights into what God must have meant when He did this or that, and the film neither endorses nor rejects, flatters nor mocks the human vessel that articulates them. Ultimately, this is the story of a woman who, temporarily, forced the church to be a little less sexist, even as she used her wiles with more powerful men to overcome the men with immediate power over her.

Sukowa embodies her character’s imposition of will with complete conviction, just as she does Hildegard’s imposing intellect and bottomless devotion. Heino Ferch warmly plays her lifelong supporter among the monks, while Herzsprung is radiant as the daughter figure.

One moderate distraction is the production’s pristine look. After a generation or more of films dedicated to how filthy olden times really were, “Vision” almost has the appearance of a 1950s period production, with each robe and veil appearing freshly cleaned and every monastery chamber looking as though it were scrubbed that very morning, all shown off via unnaturally bright lighting.

Chris Heyne’s active score combines styles and orchestration motifs to reasonably good effect.

Vision

Germany

Production

A Clasart Film production presented with Concorde Classic. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Markus Zimmer. Executive producer, Hengameh Panani. Directed, written by Margarethe von Trotta.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Axel Block; editor, Corina Dietz; music, Chris Heyne; production designer, Heike Bauersfeld; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Busch; sound designers, Jochen Fenzl, Michael Gerlach; casting, Sabine Schroth. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 6, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Masters.) Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Barbara Sukowa, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung, Lena Stolze, Alexander Held, Sunnyi Melles, Paula Kalenberg, Annemarie Duringer, Mareile Blendl, David Striesow.
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