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Originally published November 18, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Page modified November 18, 2010 at 5:01 PM

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Movie review

'Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen': a remote nun's story

"Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen" is Margarethe von Trotta's emotionally impenetrable tale about a real-life, 12th-century nun (Barbara Sukowa) with progressive tendencies.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen,' with Barbara Sukowa, Lena Stolze, Hannah Herzsprung. Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta. 110 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains adult themes and some gruesome images of self-flagellation). Seven Gables.

It's hard to muster more than curious indifference to Margarethe von Trotta's "Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen."

The film's feminist themes and strong female protagonist are elements familiar to the veteran New German Cinema writer-director ("The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," "Rosa Luxemburg"). But "Vision," though a handsome drama, is left inert by an oddly opaque approach to the story of a progressive, Benedictine nun from the Middle Ages.

The fascinating actress Barbara Sukowa, a past collaborator of von Trotta's, portrays the real-life von Bingen, a 12th-century nun cloistered at a young age.

Von Bingen grew up to become leader of her convent and a controversial seer. Despite semi-literacy, she recorded theological musings she said were dictated by God. She also pursued herbal medicine, wrote music (some of which endures), went on lecture tours and ultimately freed her community from exploitive monks.

Von Bingen certainly sounds like an outstanding subject. Von Trotta is even prepared to round out the character's positive, historical reputation with darker hints of petty competitiveness, overbearing ego and repressed sexual frustration.

But the director approaches her story with a sense of remove, as if we are not so much an audience but visitors at that convent, trying to understand from fleeting observations what makes von Bingen tick beneath her surface.

We see von Bingen rise in popularity among fellow nuns, but why she is chosen leader is not clearly evident. Her neurotic relationships with other women, including a peer (Lena Stolze) and a protégé (Hannah Herzsprung), are handled with distressing psychological detachment, as if we shouldn't use 21st-century knowledge about subconscious drives.

Downright annoying is von Trotta's ambiguity around von Bingen's visions. A whirly camera visually suggests the heroine suffers from vertigo or seizures, from which she revives and dictates God's reflections.

Von Trotta isn't obliged to commit about whether those visions, or the possibility of a higher power, are real. That's not the point of the movie. But given her overall, passion-free, too- deliberate storytelling, telling us nothing about something so dramatically rendered, at least in character terms, is frustrating.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

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