Cinema Signal:

Blowing the Whistle on the Christian Church in America:
The Hypocrisy and Double Standards Exposed
. "Luther"

Historical dramas that stick closely to the real people and events generally make for poor, if not boring, cinema. On the other hand, those that take liberties with the source material and add fictional elements, do better. Witness the outstanding "Gladiator" that created its own hero while fitting the hero's exploits into the framework of classic Roman history. Not so, "Luther" whose fictional elements dare not go beyond canonical bounds.

And, while a description of the first frames of a movie is rarely important or necessary, the first frames of this one essentially suggests 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 as well as to the proposed landscape of his mind.

Profoundly intense and passionate about the spiritual care of souls, both his own and others, we then see Luther (Joseph Fiennes) 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 wrongs, 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 marketing of a conman's sort. Luther sees its degrading effects upon the church and sets out to Rome to open up its greedy eyes to its failures. This is the beginning of the process that will be called reformation.

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 pipsqeak monk think he is? The rejection of the upstart's notions leads to his spiritual anguish and a wrestle with his beliefs, even as he begins to be heard (and followed) by the masses.

Someone else who begins to believe and support the rebel and his teachings is 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 the teachings.

While we're not in a position to tell you what's true or not, the totality is a certain revelation of how Lutheranism came about as an offshoot religious following. "Luther" is educational. Furthermore, it's likely to engender inspiration amidst the pews, as this cinematic offering is clearly designed to do.

For those with a less ready sense of awe in religious experience, the skeleton portrait of a 25 year-long tumult and the man who led it is less than grabbing. Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love"), a fine and fully trained actor, brings an excess of training and control to his rendering of 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 lead, 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 Sir Peter Ustinov (oscars for his roles in "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 as Katharina von Bora, Luther's late-in-life spouse, provides her role no color.

Technical credits are fully up to the specs called for by historical dramatization. Praise for this goes to Robert Fraisse, Director of Photography, Rolf Zehetbauer, Production Designer; and Ulla Gothe, costume designer.

Now, if this movie makes you want to learn more, explore the historical record. We commend you to your favorite search engine.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


The DVD




Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Insightful
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site Rating: 6

At least this reviewing was not insulting and demeaning as were many that I found in newspapers of large cities. This was an excellent movie that was very close to the historical record!

                                                          ~~ Kim
Well written - Insightful
This review will influence me to recommend and read more by this reviewer
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review.
Site rating: 10

This movie, in my opinion, was done tastefully with the minimum amount of violence in order to suggest the historical violence.

                                                          ~~ ZBMc
Well written - Insightful
I've seen the movie and I agree with the review.
Site rating: 8

Agree, I guess, because it brings my own as yet unconsolidated feelings on this movie into a finer focus. Nor do I agree that the Von Bora character lacked color. She was tastefully tarty, in fact. All players were limited in their scope by what you have correctly identified as 'skeletal' history - and Luther was particularly wooden from my prior imaginings - but all gave credible interpretations, nothing lacking, given an admitted lack grounds for various altered preferences.

                                                          ~~ Terry D.



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Peter Ustinov, Joseph Fiennes, Albert Molina and Claire Cox

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