Luther Movie Review

Historical dramas that take liberties with the source material and add fictional elements often do better as exciting cinema. Witness Gladiator, a movie that created its own hero while fitting his exploits into the framework of classic Roman history. Not so Luther, whose narrative elements don't dare go beyond canonical bounds of Martin Luther (not King, the original 1500s Martin Luther).

The first frames of this account suggest how the reformation of the church got started. In this initial sequence, bolts of lightning reveal a man running in a field in the darkness of night as though they were aimed at him. He splashes down into the mud and cries out, "Save me, St. Anne," vowing that, if she does him this small favor, he'll become a monk and devote his life to the church. Thus we are introduced to Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) as well as to the imagined landscape of his mind.

Profoundly intense and passionate about the spiritual care of souls, both his own and others, we then see him as a monk, celebrating his first mass, trembling in fear at consecrating the elements of Holy Communion, and as he starts moving within the political hierarchy in order to right the church's many wrongs.

In the year of 1505, the sale of "indulgences" is chief among these, one the church doesn't recognize as a corruption of spiritual guidance. In the hands of these holy pietists, exemplified by the hawking style of Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina), a farthing to buy a religious favor is the stuff of con men. Luther understands the practice as degrading to the church and sets out to Rome to open up its greedy eyes to this and other failures.

Not so easy, though, because he's playing with the system's financial underpinnings and going against the paragons who control it, like Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) and the pope himself, Leo XII (Uwe Ochsenknecht). Who does this upstart monk think he is? The rejection of his notions leads to Luther's spiritual anguish and a wrestling with his beliefs, even as he begins to be heard (and followed) by the masses.

But there is an important player who begins to believe and support the rebel and his teachings. He's Friedrich the Wise (Peter Ustinov in the most colorful performance of the movie), a rather pragmatic and faithless prince of the German territories at Augsburg. He gains courage by the passion of Luther's fiery sermons and supports his ideas by informing Emperor Charles V of his decision to defend Luther's teachings, an important contribution toward Lutheranism ultimately developing as an offshoot religious following.

Besides its educational value, Luther is likely to engender inspiration amidst the pews, an effect this cinematic offering is clearly designed to do. For those with a less ready sense of awe in religious doctrine, the skeleton portrait of a 25 year-long tumult and the man who led it is more mundane. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love), a skillful actor, brings an excess of training and control to the role -- too much to get us down to the visceral level of the man and the interior wounds of his battles. The film takes on the character of the leading personality, and it winds up feeling like a lot of strutting and emoting.

The satisfaction element of the movie comes in the portrayal of that diplomatic ace, Friedrich, by Ustinov (Oscar winner for Spartacus and Topkapi). With a dash of whimsy and a splash of vision, he's the delight of the ensemble, but not quite its rescuer. Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire), as Luther's personal priest and advisor, shows considerable depth and a keen play of changing motivations. Claire Cox is colorless as Katharina von Bora, Luther's late-in-life spouse.

Technical credits are fully up to the specs called for by historical re-creation. Particular praise for this goes to Robert Fraisse, Director of Photography, Rolf Zehetbauer, production designer; and Ulla Gothe, costume designer. Now, if this movie inspires you to learn more, explore the historical record, we commend you to your favorite search engine.

Rock my cape.


Comments

Luther Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG, 2003

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