Falling short of a higher power
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, November 12, 2010
It's not easy to make an inspiring biopic. A recent explosion of Oscar contenders, including "Milk," "Ray" and "Walk the Line," shows that the necessary elements can be a tall order; successful entries into the genre boast well-paced character development, a laundry list of tremendous accomplishments (preferably against all odds), insights into the historical zeitgeist and a dash of drama to propel the story. "Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen," the account of a 12th-century nun, gives the audience a morsel of each ingredient, but that doesn't always add up to enough.
The German film, written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, who is known for spotlighting strong female characters, initially succeeds at conveying historical context. The time period feels remote. Groups prepare themselves reverently for the apocalypse; whipping oneself in the name of religion is common practice; men of the cloth squelch the words of women unless it serves to ensure more patrons and more money. Welcome to the Middle Ages.
But there is light in the darkness, and that's Hildegard von Bingen (played by Barbara Sukowa). This nun, who was bestowed to the church as a child, is a sickly thing with a head for politics, a love of science and philosophy and, most notably, occasional visions sent from God. Despite her self-proclaimed weakness - most likely a deft maneuver to disarm the patriarchal order - she rises to become the head of the nuns at her cloister.
The early scenes of the movie are absorbing, particularly when Hildegard witnesses with revulsion the seemingly gangrenous wounds from a cilice, that self-imposed spiked metal belt. She takes a stand against such corporal mortification among other ordained acts, which puts her at odds with the abbot of the monastery.
She doesn't seem to care about the schism, though, which is an accomplishment in itself. She's a woman who thinks for herself. She also experiments with herbs as remedies, pens plays and chants and breaks away from the male-ruled world by founding her own convent. But this impressive checklist, along with her divine visions, feels glossed over. To truly appreciate her achievements, it's necessary to either come into the film with prior knowledge of the subject or leave the theater headed straight for a library (or, let's be honest, Wikipedia). Instead, a subplot about the increasingly obsessive relationship between Hildegard and one of her followers threatens to swallow the movie whole. It's a dreary turn, especially because it isn't nearly as compelling or salacious as it reads. More accurately, it's an unnecessarily laborious display of the abbess's foibles.
For many, the idea of a dramatic biopic trumps the prospect of a documentary, because creative storytelling affords unique opportunities to flesh out a character and reveal his or her motivations. But "Vision" seems to beg for a narrator, someone who can give insights into this superficial glimpse of von Bingen's life and the legacy she left.
Contains scenes of flagellation and a particularly disturbing look at self-inflicted wounds. In German with English subtitles.