Diocesan News

New Film on Hildegard Attacks Church, Distorts Historical Truth

LINCOLN (SNR)  - “Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen” is a beautifully filmed production and is rich in aesthetics, from its music to the stunning natural settings and the beautiful monasteries and chapels where it was filmed. It portrays Hildegard of Bingen as a visionary and prophetess, a woman of faith and determination who overcame many obstacles to realize her dream and to follow the visions that she believed to be sent to her from God.

Despite its aesthetic appeal, however, Vision left this critic deeply troubled because it gives a very inaccurate picture of who Hildegard of Bingen really was. The historical figure Hildegard of Bingen was a great woman because of her Catholic Christian faith. In contrast to that historical reality, the movie Vision emphatically sends the message that she was a great woman in spite of her Catholic Christian faith. This premise, on which the entire movie is based, could be very misleading to the viewer in forming impressions about the true nature of medieval Christianity as well as of the actual life of Hildegard of Bingen.

Director Margarethe von Trotta is famous in Germany for having worked before with Barbara Sukowa (who plays Hildegard) in making highly politicized feminist films, such as Die bleierne Zeit (Marianne and Juliane) and Rosa Luxemburg. The radical feminist message of the movie Vision is anti-men and thus predictably anti-Church, which is caricatured as oppressively patriarchal to the point of being evil. Men in this movie are the enemies of virtue and goodness in every way. The monks and bishops whom Hildegard variously opposes and manipulates are portrayed as greedy, cunning, cold-hearted men, interested in Hildegard’s visions only to the extent that they can profit from her. No doubt there were greedy monks in the Middle Ages, but the film’s presentation of monasticism as intrinsically oppressive is simplistic and skewed. Even the pope and Saint Bernard are portrayed as figures whom Hildegard manipulates into supporting her mission of overthrowing patriarchy.

The only exception to the “man as villain” theme of Vision is Brother Volmar, who is shown as kind and good because he supports Hildegard in her disobedience to the Church. He sits in bewilderment and transcribes Hildegard’s words as she gives an explicit lesson about male sexual anatomy, a scene which is needlessly inserted into the film to titillate and amuse in an immodest and provocative way. In perhaps the most mocking scene of the entire movie, Brother Volmar is cast as the Devil in Hildegard’s morality play and is tied up and struck by all of Hildegard’s sisters, who have taken off their religious habits in the name of freedom while an old nun looks on with disdain and dismay.

Historical facts – that Hildegard wrote morality plays and that nuns were permitted to dress up for dramatic productions – are used to score cheap points against the priesthood and the beautiful Catholic Christian tradition of religious life. The final scene, where Hildegard leaves to go and “preach” is not only very misleading and inaccurate, historically speaking, but shows her riding off into the hills with Brother Volmar following. The not-so-subtle message: man put in his place by woman who has overthrown his authority. In Vision, Hildegard finds freedom, beauty, and truth, only to the extent that she throws off the repressive, closed-minded, controlling shackles of the Catholic Church.

 The movie opens with a scene of religious madness: millenarianism, violent flagellation, fear, hysteria about the imminent approach of the end of the world. Undoubtedly these things existed in the Middle Ages, and they were condemned by the Catholic Church as distortions of the true faith, as even the most basic study of the history of the medieval Lateran councils or the preaching of Saints Bernard, Dominic, and Francis makes clear.

The movie thus consistently portrays Catholicism as a sect following insanely fearful and irrational superstitions. Over the course of the movie only Hildegard with her “enlightened” vision sees the madness for what it is. She spends her entire life (the entire movie) trying to break free of the oppressive controlling superstition that Catholic Christianity supposedly embodies.

All of the above makes clear that, whatever else may be said about the film, a central theme of Vision is a not-so-subtle attack on the Catholic priesthood. In the present culture we are all aware that this message wins huge acclaim and lots of snickers from ‘enlightened’ people who are already cynical about the Catholic Church. Anyone who is aware of the beauty and goodness of the Catholic priesthood will see neither beauty nor goodness in this film’s persistent effort to caricature, mock and vilify the priesthood.

Where does Hildegard find beauty, freedom, vision, healing, and goodness? The movie’s agenda here is apparent throughout: in the earth, in the elements, in the human soul, in the body, in herbs and crystals. The injection of a New Age “Mother Earth as Goddess” spirituality into a medieval setting is an example of yet more historical inaccuracy in Vision. Hildegard is presented as a great healer and visionary to the extent that she goes “back to nature” rather than being formed and guided by the Beauty and Wisdom of Christ and the Christian faith (which in the movie’s portrayal is not beautiful or wise at all but evilly oppressive). The “Living Light” of the historical Hildegard becomes, as presented in Vision, an unidentifiable inner force which directs her away from Christ and the Church to find healing and wholeness in some other more enlightened place.

Regarding the disturbing segment where a young sister becomes pregnant and then commits suicide: 1) it is not historically an actual event known to be part of the life of Hildegard; 2) it continues the theme of “man as violent aggressor” which pervades the entire movie; 3) it shows a merciless response from everyone involved, including Hildegard, presumably because of how blinded they are by their Catholicism. The segment does nothing to further the plot of the film and occasions yet another cheap shot at “medieval attitudes” – translation: “Catholic backwardness.”

Vision, by its distortion of historical truth and its unapologetic attack on the Catholic Christian tradition of monastic life authentically lived in poverty, chastity, and obedience, does not reveal the truth and beauty of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, but rather obscures and distorts it for the sake of advancing a political agenda.

The fact that the movie ostensibly presents the life of one of the great women of the history of the Catholic Church does not in any way lessen its inherently anti-Christian anti-Catholic message; in fact it makes its confusing distortions even more objectionable. It is unfortunate that the beautiful packaging of this movie as an inspiring story of a woman of faith contains a message that is clearly designed to sow seeds of doubt and confusion in the hearts of those who, like the historical Hildegard, love and respect the beauty of the Catholic Church.

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