Has there been a late master propensity to Nun Cinema of late?—or at the very least, a cinema of cloisters, with Rohmer, Rivette, Bellochio and now Margarethe von Trotta turning to the literal¬ confines that surround people of the past. While von Trotta’s project—on the life of magistra, author, and composer Hildegard von Bingen—is the most straightforward of this loose group, her interest lays not with the confines of the orders of faith, but of love.
Von Bingen’s struggle to express the visions from God she experiences are the defining structure to the film, but not its focus, which lays like small seeds in each scene, quietly expressing an utter emotional affinity to a time and a context so far away from us. Remarkably, and especially when compared to Rivette’s Don’t Touch the Axe and Bellochio’s masterful Vincere, the sympathy of von Trotta’s Vision lays in joy. The look on the nuns’ faces and the breezy openness of their dormitory when they vote Hildegard as their mother; or von Bingen’s face, full of wonder (she is played by Barbara Sukowa in a great performance at once tender and mystic) when a visiting priest lends her his traveling library of books; the numerous deathbeds of the film countered by the sickly von Bingen’s continual resurrection—all fail to explain the woman or her life or talent in terms of biopic-drama and instead invest these scenes with the practical emotions of a regular life in the cloisters, ones not of contact with God but with other humans.
By breaking a strict realism of historical depiction through liberal use of the camera’s zoom and the surprisingly little presence of von Bingen’s own music on the soundtrack, the film is carried away from the stale politics of totalitarianism of so many nun films (see, at the genre’s very best, Rivette’s own The Nun). The chaste but subtly searching love of the cloister’s loyal, sympathetic priest (Heino Ferch), with his easy handsomeness, and the equally searching and oft-painfully ill-defined mother-daughter love of the nuns has none of Romance of Astrea and Celadon’s supple eroticism, instead hinting at something simple, but fundamental in the ambiguity of love in human relationships. Despite its title, far from showing us the exterior manifestation of Godliness of Hildegard von Bingen’s life, Margarethe von Trotta’s film, in its contained but generous sense of the emotional tenor of each individual scene, seems to be exploring the nuances of love on this earth.