Vision: Feminism in the Dark Ages?

The fifth collaboration of director Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa, Vision continues the proto-feminist canonization of Blessed Hildegard von Bingen (Sukowa), 12th-century Benedictine magistra, scientist, visionary composer, and literal receptor of visions. Cloistered at age 8, Hildegard grows into hardball politicking in the Holy Roman Empire as a celebrity seer, handling Frederick I and the Bishop of Mainz while maneuvering to break away from fraternal repression and form an independent, all-female monastery with right-hand assistant Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). A bustling figure among ancient gray colonnades when not ill to extreme unction, Hildegard is presented as a prophet of a more modern and less gloomy faith, rejecting mortification and calcified prejudices, and thus meeting tut-tut disapproval from catacomb-faced church elders. None of these formulaic clashes equals the impact of Hildegard undressing the corpse of her beloved prioress, appalled at finding a spiked girdle buried in her rotten flesh—a revulsion that has more to do with the film’s liberal-humanist view of the Dark Ages as ripe for reform than with Hildegard’s stated beliefs (she was no crusader against flagellation). Vision is more immediate and immersive when dealing in the jealous attachments among sisters; when circumstance and politics tear Richardis from Hildegard, Sukowa’s performance rears to towering heights of abjection.