Review: Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

See all of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films (and other media) over at Todd Mason’s blog.

There’s a short BBC film on the life of Hildegard von Bingen that I show to my classes starring the fantastic Patricia Routledge as the visionary healer. Despite its creaky low-budget ambience I prefer it to this one despite its beauties. But I’m all for more films (and plays and books) about one of the many influential women of the Middle Ages. Despite what my students have sometimes told me, there are not only women in medieval times (yes, I have had students say that “there were no women in Anglo-Saxon England” which makes one wonder how there were any men…) but a surprising number were well known at the time not just in retrospect.

Hildegard is one and this film conveys some of the reasons why. Her visions hold center stage here, which is a shame because her music should share that stage. The music is there, but it’s as if filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta assumes you already know about the music from the start. Eventually — and rather gloriously — the music gets it moment, embodied in a very pagan-looking production of the Ordo Virtutum which releases the nuns from their habits and wimples to look absolutely golden with grace.

But a lot of the film seems unable to see Hildegard’s piety except from an anachronistic modernity. There’s the gruesome revelation of her spiritual mother’s cilice upon her death, where the metal prongs have to be peeled away from her rotting flesh. Hildegard’s combativeness against the masculine discipline seems to be the simple misogyny of individuals rather than the more complicated hierarchical world that evolves from a patriarchal structure; after all, Hildegard proves able to negotiate that imposing edifice with skill and insight, circumventing control with targeted appeals to the right ears. The importance of an authoritative endorsement of her work at the Synod of Trier and her correspondence with popes and leaders demonstrates the significant power this “humble vessel” attained.

Of course modern filmmakers can only see the relationships between the women, especially Hildegard’s connection to her acolyte Richardis, as a barely concealed sexual attraction, which trivialises the depth and complexity of the lives of women in cloistered world. Hildegard’s faith gave her authority and power; it infused her life and her outlook. The visions — which von Trotta’s film suggests are as often put on for show as for genuine insight — were amazingly complex works that crystalised complex notions into a single multifaceted image. She turned a medical condition that plagued her into a gift that allowed her to interpret and explain in an unprecedented way: true genius.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy in the film. Barbara Sukowa makes an arresting Hildegard and the film provides a gorgeous view of medieval life that isn’t all leeches and mud. The gardens in particular are lovely: Hildegard as a healer (and the author of Physica and Causae et Curae) also gets short shrift in the film, though we do see her teaching the novices herbs. The film has a leisurely pace, so don’t go expecting action/adventure. A good introduction for folks who know nothing about this remarkable woman: with luck, it will inspire you to look further.