LutherReviewed By Thom
Posted 09/27/03 11:25:59
(Worth A Look)
Joseph Fiennes gives a finely nuanced performance as Martin Luther, the reformer. While not the only Catholic reformer, Luther is the most well known. (Calvin and the Ana-Baptists were also persecuted for the way they wanted to practice Christianity.) The events surrounding Luther and his crisis of conscience that led to the Protestant Reformation are so epic and dramatic and scope I imagine the temptation would be to take all that sound and fury and embody it.But Fiennes brings us a complex Luther and the writers give us scene after scene that shows us his humor, his wit, his compassion and the fierce integrity that helped him stand up to Rome when the consequence could have been death.
The drama is all around the character of Luther and this film reminded me of ELIZABETH with a focus on power relationships and political intrigue in the late middle ages. Popes and Princes co-conspiring for political power and wealth.
When Luther stands up to Rome, the prince, Frederick the Wise, who rules over Wittenburg (Sir Peter Ustinov) must decide whether and how to protect his star professor at the local University. As Luther persists, the Pope enlists the aid of Emperor Charles the Fifth (Torben Liebrecht) to deliver Luther to Rome where he will be officially censured, ex-communicated and most likely, killed. Lutherís long time friend, Johan Tetzel (Alfred Molina) enjoys his senior post as an aid to the Pope and advises both the Pope and the Emperor on how to deal with the Luther ďproblem.Ē
The film shows the progression of Luther as he questions the validity of the Churchís position on itís teachings about salvation and redemption. What infuriated Luther the most was the use of holy relics (splinters from the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, the skull of a saint, etc) as spiritual talismans and the selling of indulgences where you could literally buy time off of an eternity in hell or purgatory for either you or your loved ones. And there is a hilarious scene where a local monk hawks indulgences like the slickest snake oil salesmen youíve ever seen. At one point, when he comes to describing the torments of hell, two assistants unroll paintings of people writhing in tortured agony surrounded by flames. The audience gasps and he knows he just closed the deal.
Lutherís criticism starts cutting into Romeís official fundraiser which it uses for military campaigns. The film doesnít dwell on the fact that the reason Rome wanted Luther stopped was not so much because he was usurping itís spiritual authority, but because he was cutting into the bottom line but it brings up that part of it. Luther was more concerned with the Church abusing itís spiritual authority and he was steadfastly devoted to his God and wanted nothing more than to do what priests do and assist the people in their devotion and relationship to God through Christ.
In case you didnít know, the Roman Papacy has a long history of corruption and political concerns of a decidedly non-spiritual nature, even if, on paper, they are all spiritual descendants of Peter Ė the symbolic founder of the Catholic Church.
The film has a tight structure and is well-scripted and like any underdog story and in this case, an illustration straight from the history books, it was easy to identify with Luther and his conspirators and you could almost see the person bringing the Boo and Hiss cards around as the heroís and the villains took to the screen.
The film also doesnít shy away from showing the gruesome reality of the riots that took place in Wittenberg when the people thought that Luther had been disposed of and a well-meaning but misguided fellow professor turned Lutherís reformation into a massacre. The film also depicts the hanging suicide of a young boy which I thought was a brave move because you donít see children dying in Hollywood. LUTHER doesnít shy away from showing rather than implying death as it really was without being pornographic but instead provides the startling emotional truths of the story.
LUTHER is well-acted and well-scripted and the art direction and cinematography are all top of the line. Every scene is rich with details. The only part that I didnít think worked well is the leitmotif of a peasant woman and her crippled daughter which is used as a foil to show us the compassion of Luther. The plot device didnít carry a lot of impact and the scenes that dealt with that story came dangerously close to be saccharine and sentimental. That subplot could have gone much farther. As it was, we are taken into a compelling story in itís own right but it canít develop without taking focus away from Luther and Rome. But it helped show all the personal as well as political conflicts of Luther when you see that he had to be the one who destroyed the faith of the ignorant for people for whom that faith was the key to their reality.
Lutherís last and greatest act was to translate the New Testament into German so the common people could read the Bible for themselves and that was the point of no return for Protestantism.
Peter Ustinov plays a loveably steadfast Frederick The Wise who you think is a tyrant and becomes one of Lutherís greatest allies. His motives for helping Luther had nothing to do with spiritual or religious ideals. Frederick likes to collect things of value and at first he protects Luther because he is one of his valuable possessions, but a sense of statesmanship and justice compel Frederick to continue to assist Luther stay out of the clutches of Rome or even the Emperor.
At times the film catapults you through important moments and the story seems to develop very fast in some places. The plot is throughly developed and it could have been a much longer film if we lingered in certain areas. The romance and marriage of Katerina von Borg (the former Nun who escaped the convent during the riots, played by Claire Cox) and Luther could have been a meatier part of the film, as could the relationship between Luther and the peasant woman and the crippled child.
The most striking casting choice was Torben Liebrecht. His look is so peculiarly German that it was almost as if he was taken out of a painting from the time period and put into this film. He played the young emporer as boldened by his title but inexperienced in matters of state or tradition.LUTHER doesnít feel like itís lacking in meat or pacing by glossing over plot elements that do not directly move the adverserial relationship between Luther and Rome or Luther championing his cause.
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