As sincerely offered as a penitent's prayer (yet lacking a certain fervor), Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of 12th-century protofeminist Hildegard von Bingen---nun, artist and healer---supplies plenty of starchy, medieval chat. You also get a sense for the life's stifling frocks, bowl haircuts and drafty cloisters, and isn't that fascinating?
But the fiery independence that would antagonize Von Bingen's male superiors is in suspiciously short supply; the movie is dowdied up, just when it should be plunging into rage and color. Writer-director Von Trotta, an icon of the New German Cinema, doesn't have the technical chops for the fireworks you desire, so she settles for wan earnestness.
It didn't have to be this way. Barbara Sukowa, the tigress of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Lola (1981) and a frequent Von Trotta lead, easily could have supplied more heat. As Hildegard, she makes you hang on her every eyebrow twitch and chin jut; it's an unnecessarily restrained performance. When her beautiful acolyte and "daughter," Sister Richardis (Herzsprung), decides to fly from under her wing and go to another abbey, you ache for the subtext to finally be voiced. Nope. Black Narcissus (1947), an engorged religious psychodrama, has just received a beautiful DVD transfer; it's the place to start if you really want to see how such stories should be done.