Vision -- Film Review

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TELLURIDE, Colo. -- The Telluride Film Festival's tribute to German director Margarethe von Trotta concluded with the world premiere of her latest film, "Vision." While von Trotta has dealt with historical subjects before, in "Rosa Luxembourg" (1986) and "Rosenstrasse" (2003), she leaps back a whole millennium to survey the life of pioneering Benedictine nun Hildegard von Bingen (beautifully played by Barbara Sukova), who introduced holistic medicine to her convent during the 12th century. Although the film has been carefully made and centers on a most unusual heroine, it is too painstakingly slow to capture an American audience.

All of von Trotta's previous films have had a strong feminist slant, and this one is no exception: it focuses on a woman defying male authority in medieval times. Hildegard refuses to abide by the strictures set down by the monks at her abbey; she defiantly pursues her own medical, spiritual, and intellectual interests. She even persuades the church elders to allow her to build her own cloister apart from the men.

Hildegard believes that she sees visions from God, and Sukova's fierce performance helps to make the character's mystical yearning credible. Yet the film fails to find any striking visual correlatives to Hildegard's spiritual passion. Von Trotta has never been a strong visual stylist, and this is one story that cries out for more transcendent filmmaking.

The film is also dramatically wan. When Hildegard takes a young novitiate under her wing, she becomes deeply invested in turning this girl into an acolyte. But then Sister Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung) decides to take a position at another abbey, and the headstrong Hildegard feels betrayed. While Hildegard's strengths and weaknesses are honestly portrayed, the film doesn't clarify Richardis's conflicts, so this portion of the film seems underdeveloped. While there are a few effective scenes showing Hildegard battling her male superiors, too much of the film chronicles the repetitive routines inside the convent. We relish the few lush outdoor scenes because so many of the interiors are parched and monotonous.

An inevitable comparison is to Fred Zinnemann's "The Nun's Story," made 50 years ago. That film, featuring one of Audrey Hepburn's most luminous performances, had the dramatic tension missing from von Trotta's well intended but desiccated treatise.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Cast: Barbara Sukova, Heino Ferch, Hannah Herzsprung, Lena Stolze, Sunnyi Melles, Annemarie Duringer, Paula Kalenberg, Devid Striesow
Director-screenwriter: Margarethe von Trotta
Producer: Markus Zimmer
Director of photography: Axel Block
Production designer: Heike Bauersfeld
Music: Christian Heyne
Editor: Corina Dietz
No MPAA rating, 110 minutes