Saturday, December 18, 2010

Love & Squalor: Vision

They don’t make a lot of things like they used to, and one of those things is religious music. There was a time when it communicated a direct connection to something just beyond the veil of air, when it would drift through hallways with the promise of comfort and mystery, a million times more profound than the likes of New Song and “Christmas Shoes.” The early Catholic nun Hildegard Von Bingen
reportedly had visions of God her entire sickly life, and while I can’t say I believe either way, listening to her music is enough proof for me that something was giving her a connection to the divine. Her haunting songs are still listened to today, and reflect the magic that seemed to swirl around her, the hippie of the early saints, all healing, love, and magic stones.


And while director Margarethe von Trotta makes an attempt to capture that esoteric atmosphere in her new biography of the Blessed Hildegard von Bingen, she only succeeds half the time, sometimes beautiful and profound, but mostly uneven. There’s a lot to work with when it comes to von Bingen and each part of her history was fascinating enough to be the focus of its own film. She was known best for her music, composing over 70-80 surviving musical pieces. She was a writer (unheard of at the time for a cloistered woman) with works on health, nature, and her experience with visions. She was also an early feminist icon, forging forward with her cloister of nuns regardless of what the men around her objected to, writing, preaching, and never taking no for an answer. But instead of choosing a focus, von Trotta chooses them all.


While a light even dusting of each part of von Bingen's personality would have given the viewer a well rounded picture, she does the opposite. She starts making a Romantic film that focuses on von Bingen’s magical attributes, her healing abilities, music, and visions, creating picture of a humble women chosen by God, but abandons that thread half way through the film to focus on her drive and moving the nuns from a co-ed cloister to their own private one. Then we suddenly jump to the intensity of von Bingen’s familial love for one of her young novices, Ricardus, and the film takes another turn. The relationship between the two women is one of the most interesting parts of the film, but again, it’s merely a separate part. As the film progressives, there seems to be a variety of different von Bingen’s, the only tie between them the face of Barbara Sukowa whose performance is neither great nor horrible, adding to the pervasive ‘meh” feeling of the film.


And yet, there some worthwhile moments. Von Trotta does capture an interesting perspective, her view of the cloister half romanticized cinematography and half harsh reality. It’s a beautiful, quiet film, the ambiance perfectly expressing the feeling in von Bingen’s music. The music is not a focal point of the film, but in the two or three times that von Trotta allows it to flow, it syncs up with the visuals in a striking way that’s hard to forget. This is nearly destroyed by the Peter Jackson-esqe visions that von Bingen occasionally experiences, that feel entirely non-mystical or engaging, but it is enough to briefly make the film transcend its problems.

Briefly, is the key word though. Try as they might, Vision is just that; a brief glimpse as to what the film could have been with some better editing and a firmer grasp of which von Bingen the filmmakers cared to portray, each separate piece lacking the glue to make it add up to a whole.

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