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By Matthew Sorrento | May 18, 2011

A couple weeks ago, my fellow FT scribe Rick Kisonak showed his love for monks. I share his enthusiasm, since the cloistered men are often challenged to assert themselves onscreen. Not so with all religious personnel.

When it comes to nuns onscreen, more viewers are wary than curious. Today, they too easily embody repression, their habits suggesting all they restrict from themselves and stifle within. While many nuns today lose the habit, the traditional nun can reflect the troubled Catholic Church, with countless sex scandals on its record. The eerie imagery of Sharon Olds’ poem, “The Pope’s Penis,” brings the symbolism to the church’s head. Predating much of today’s scandal, the brief poem is as prescient as it is disturbing. At night, the poem’s eponymous organ “stands up / in praise of God.” In these times, the holy is owned by those who doubt (or despise) it.

New German Cinema figure Margarethe von Trotta forgets these hangups in her latest film, “Vision” (now on DVD). She realizes the woman behind the (medieval)  habit so well that it becomes invisible. Her Hildegard von Bingen (played in adulthood by Barbara Sukowa) is a fiery spirit within a repressive milieu.

Opening in AD 999, the film portrays a group huddled in a cave at night, fearing a Millenial Apocalypse; it’s quieted when dawn arrives. From there on, von Trotta presents Hildegard’s arrival to earth (a few years later) as a small Renaissance. As a young girl entering the convent, she’s committed to learning in general as she is to the church. Like the life of Christ, hers jumps ahead to her early thirties, and after taking the veil she becomes a teacher, like her inspiration. She begins having visions, and her eloquence in describing them – namely, her power with language – helps convince many that her visions are real.

After Hildegard is elected to lead her peers, she sees kinship in the passion of Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), a young woman in the convent who grows devoted to Hildegard. Seen as too earthy by the bishop, Richardis becomes a protege to Hildegard, on whom she begins to rely. When the younger must leave – on the order of her brother, who needs her support in his new post – Hildegard collapses, emotionally and literally. We realize that the platonic relationship is the closest to a romance Hildegard will ever have, now that it’s gone.

When fighting the oppression of her church, Hildegard finds support from friend Volmar (Heino Ferch). When she requests to move her cloister, and build a new from scratch at Rupertsberg, she wages enough support, though many in her sisterhood rebel when they must labor for the construction. Hildegard strives for her own freedom and theirs. (The film’s lonely fault, a pregnant nun moved to suicide, is formulaic.)

Von Trotta rightfully hands the film over to Sukowa. In this character study, the filmmaker restricts the viewpoint to Hildegard and her limited environs. The conceit proves liberating to Sukowa, whose powerful physical performance resounds through many quiet moments.  These two artists show how the strongest human spirit is in those who lead others and discover for the benefit of all. It’s a portrayal of an immortal spirit thriving in a unique vision.

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