Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: The Princess and the Nun

It can be difficult even today for women to achieve equal standing in male-dominated religious settings, so imagine how tough things were in the 12th and 16th centuries! Two fact-based new releases, The Princess of Montpensier (now playing theatrically in select cities) and Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen (out today on DVD from Zeitgeist Films), explore the challenges faced by two women caught between the religious conflicts and social mores of their times.

The Princess of Montpensier, directed by the fine French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight) and adapted from a 17th century historical novella, tells a tale of intrigue involving an innocent young heiress who becomes the apple of no less than four men's eyes during the reign of corrupt Catholic queen Catherine de Medici. The lovely Marie de Mezieres (beautifully portrayed by Melanie Thierry) is betrothed by her father against her wishes to Prince Philippe de Montpensier (played by the very cute Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, who reminded me of a Gallic Jake Gyllenhaal and has a nude scene to boot). Marie loves Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel of Hannibal Rising), who with the Prince frequently wages war against the Protestant Hugeuenots alongside Catherine's son — and the future King Henry III — the Duc d'Anjou (a charismatic turn by Raphael Personnaz).


In addition to these three men, Marie also unintentionally stirs the desire of Philippe's monk-like bodyguard, the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson, most recently seen in the excellent, similarly fact-based Of Gods and Men). While the Prince is away at war, the Count empowers Marie by teaching her how to write and instructing her in science, theology, and matters of both state and the heart.

Thierry and the screenplay by Tavernier, Jean Cosmos and Fran├žois-Olivier Rousseau imbue Marie with an intense longing for respect and equality even as she respects her father's demand that she "submit" to his plan to marry her to the similarly unwitting Philippe. Whereas the Count on one hand reinforces this with his observation of the heavens, noting, "The stars teach obedience to the laws of equilibrium and modesty," he is also a clearly conflicted man when it comes to his feelings for Marie and the raging religious conflict. As he muses in the presence of the Prince and Princess, "How can people of the same blood and faith kill each other in the name of the same God?" Marie takes respectful note of the Count's position.

Marie also confesses to the Count at one point, "This war, I don't know what it's about." Five centuries later, she may as well be echoing the thoughts of people the world over today who helplessly weather the ongoing "War on Terror" and other religion-fueled political skirmishes. The Princess of Montpensier is a potent, intimate romantic epic that satisfies yet frequently exceeds genre expectations.


Meanwhile, Mother Hildegard von Bingen endures as one of the most progressive (and criminally but tellingly non-canonized) Catholic women of all time. Claiming to receive directive, sometimes painful, visions from God, this Benedictine nun and mystic gained the favor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, her contemporary, as well as the Archbishop of Mainz, Germany. The local abbot, her immediate superior, bristled at Hildegard's frequent challenges to his government, especially when she decided to separate herself and her sisters from his hermitage in order to establish their own convent.

In addition to her notable leadership of their religious community — she famously insisted that the sisters vote for their new mother following the death of her predecessor, also over the abbot's objections — Hildegard is remembered for her voluminous writings (including a book on human sexuality), a number of musical compositions, and for being one of the first women religious to travel and preach extensively. To Hildegard, God was first and foremost "the living light" and love was "the greatest power given by God." She accurately defined envy, jealousy and desire for power as the greatest enemies of Christians and human beings in general.

Actress Barbara Sukowa (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Romance & Cigarettes) brings Hildegard to vivid life in Margarethe von Trotta's Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. It is an overdue and generally well-made but not entirely satisfying biopic. The script covers considerable historical ground much too quickly, and some cheesy zoom camera shots and quick-cut editing distract rather than augment. Still, Hildegard receives via von Trotta and Sukowa a greater tribute than she has to date from the Church she so remarkably served 900 years ago.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Princess of Montpensier: A-
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard Von Bingen: B

UPDATE: The Princess of Montpensier is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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