Sunday, November 14, 2010

Vision:Hildegard von Bingen

Thick snow covers the branches and telephone wires, once again the electricity is off, no heat or light except what can be got from candles and a fire in the fireplace. On the stereo, some ethereal hymns composed eight-hundred-odd years ago by Hildegard von Bingen. It suits the occasion.

Hildegard began seeing visions and hearing voices at the age of three. Much later she wrote down these experiences, encouraged by clerics in high places. She is often referred to as Western Europe’s first mystic. As an adult she founded an abbey, wrote music and some of the first Mystery plays, executed visionary, almost psychedelic paintings, traveled widely, corresponded with the high and mighty, and attracted many pilgrims to her doorstep.

And now German director Margarethe von Trotta, a former cohort of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog best known for The Lost Honor of Katerina Blum (1975) has made a film about her.

It’s a good, if conventional, film, which charts the course of Hildegard’s career in episodic fashion, focusing mainly on her relations with the sisters and monks at the monastery where she was raised. Von Trotte makes little effort to reproduce Hildegard’s inner experience, recreating only one brief vision and neglecting to show us even one of the abbess’s paintings. Nor does she delve deeply into the woman’s philosophy of “greening” or “life-power” which has become popular among environmentalists of a New Age stamp.

But von Trotta has recreated the atmosphere of the times quite well, with the help of Hildegard’s own music, and actress Barbara Sukowa, in the title role, has the piercing gaze and utter sincerity of purpose to command our attention. Hildegard’s love of books—very scarce at the time—and her interest in nature, come through loud and clear, as does the challenge of dealing with her visions in a world where cries of “Heresy!” come easily to the lips of those in power—who are almost always men. Her conflicts with the church hierarchy supply most of the film’s drama, and the undercurrents of shifting affection among the nuns themselves give it some counterpoint.

While watching the film I was reminded from time to time of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, but more often of those little-seen films Roberto Rossellini made at the end of his career such as Pascal, Socrates, and The Age of the Medici. I find it remarkable that in this day and age, a documentary film shot along such lines can still get a few weeks of screen time at a major film venue!

Also remarkable is Hildegard’s music, which you can hear in all its glory on “A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen” featuring the incomparable soprano Emma Kirkby with the Gothic Voices (Hyperion CDA66039).

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