Thursday, April 21, 2011

Visionary von Trotta

Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta
Starring Barbara Sukowa, Lena Stolze, Heino Ferch
On DVD from Zeitgeist Films

Of the films that director Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa have made together, the most memorable is their 1986 biopic, Rosa Luxemburg, an in-depth look at the early 20th century socialist/proto-feminist leader. For this talented duo's latest collaboration, the engrossing biography Vision, they have traveled back another 800 years to explore the life of the 12th century abbess and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen.

Over the past few decades, a thriving cottage industry has grown up around von Bingen's musical compositions, which have been performed and recorded by several early-music groups and released to critical and popular acclaim. Although her composing talent is probably the most well-known to contemporary viewers, Vision meticulously demonstrates that she was also a medieval polymath: a poet, a playwright, a philosopher, a mystic and even a holistic healer for all kinds of physical ailments.

Von Trotta—who originally was interested in making this biography in the early 1980s, but could not find the financing—does present one of von Bingen's “stage works,” enacted by her fellow nuns for the benefit of visiting church leaders. But von Bingen's role as a seer and a mystic is the movie's primary focus, as her visions make her a prophet in the eyes of some of the men of the church, while others are more skeptical, going so far as to say the visions are the devil's work and condemning her as a heretic.

Appropriately, Von Trotta opens Vision with a sequence depicting the last day of the first millennium, as a group of end-timers discovers that the end of the world has not yet arrived. This opening scene not only places von Bingen's biography in the context of its era, but also wittily comments on the continuing phenomenon of believers 1000 years later to twist what they perceive as “God's plan” to suit their own agenda.

But Vision is not at all anti-religious. Von Trotta's account of this absorbing true story is straightforward and conscientious as it explores how central religious belief was nearly a millennium ago, although there was also an implicit sexism at work. The film shows that von Bingen's polymathy was, if not outright encouraged, at least allowed by the leaders of the patriarchal church, mainly because she lived in a cloistered world with very few opportunities to influence others. That she is now an icon in every sense of the word refutes such a narrow judgment.

Brilliantly photographed in medieval-era cloisters in Germany by Axel Block, Vision contains many visual suggestions of the illuminations that decorate the volumes of von Bingen's writings. The film's painstaking historical aspects include convincing costumes and sets, while Chris Heyne's subtly-realized score features the abbess's own musical works.

The forceful and fearless star of films by Fassbinder and Schlondorff as well as earlier features by von Trotta, Sukowa is shown for nearly the entire movie wearing her cloistered nun's habit, which obscures everything from view but her face. But it is a face of endless expressiveness, which von Trotta shows in admiring closeups. Twice we see her without the habit—during the presentation of her musical work and before her death—and each time it's startling, as if we're seeing a completely different person.

It’s a measure of both the actress’s and the director’s artistry—and their compatibility—that they create such an authentically real woman out of such a legendarily deified cult figure.

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