Roses are reddish, violets are bluish; if it weren't for Jesus, we'd all be Jewish. And if it weren't for Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic Church would still rule all of Christendom. The historical drama Luther details the adult life of the fiery German theologian who revolutionized religious thought and changed the course of Western history with his doctrine of "salvation by faith alone" (rather than by the sale of indulgences) and his attacks on papal authority. While this didn't endear him to Rome -- he was, in fact, excommunicated and would have been executed but for the support of several powerful German princes -- it won him a rabid following among the general populace.
Luther can be seen as a kind of refresher course in the history of the Reformation, an event most people read about in high school world history but about which they remember very little. Dense, condensed, and rather heavy, the film isn't a date movie, unless one is boning up for an exam or prefers movies to textbooks (always a bad idea since movies tend to leave out important bits). While a six-part series on PBS would present a more in-depth exploration and make the characters easier to identify, this German-American coproduction gets the salient points across. And it has perhaps unexpected relevance in our contemporary age when private and public financial companies, government agencies, and government-connected contractors are being exposed left and right for their greed, materialism, profiteering, cynicism, and amorality.
The film opens as Luther (Joseph Fiennes), then a law student, gets caught in a ferocious rainstorm. Thunder roars around his head while bolts of lightning rip across the sky and crash along the ground beside him. Terrified he will be killed, he makes a pact with God: Spare me and I'll dedicate my life to you. Soon thereafter he joins an Augustinian order of monks, a move disparaged by his disapproving father.
He bonds with Father Johann von Staupitz (German actor Bruno Ganz), who becomes his spiritual mentor and father figure. Staupitz sends him to Rome on church business where, to his shock, he discovers not only priests lining their pockets with money essentially confiscated from citizens, but positions of prestige and power being sold to the highest bidder. Equally disconcerting, sexual relations between priests and prostitutes are common.
Indulgences prove the final straw. These were paper "certificates," issued by the Vatican for a fee, which supposedly allowed the buyer to bypass, or greatly reduce time in, purgatory and go straight to heaven. The cynical profiteering of this scheme, plus the general level of corruption he encountered in Rome, shatter Luther's idealistic vision of the Church.
After earning a Ph.D at the University of Wittenberg and becoming a professor of theology, he starts to publicly question the Church's practices. He nails his famous 95 Theses to the local church door. Just about everybody in Europe gets the opportunity to read his words thanks to the recent invention of the Gutenberg printing press. While Luther's courage and spirit win him the loyalty of Prince Frederick the Wise (an always-delightful Sir Peter Ustinov), it earns him the enmity of the new pope, Leo X (Uwe Ochsenknecht). The stage is set for a David and Goliath showdown between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church.
Even with the portrait of Luther as a fiery, deeply conflicted and, at times, self-hating individual, the film is dry and inescapably heavy with relevance and significance, which is fine for people who go into the film knowing that. Fiennes is fine, but it is Ustinov who -- as always -- walks off with the film. Never particularly spry physically, the portly actor, writer, director, and raconteur remains absolutely adorable. He should be declared a global treasure.
Nearly the entire picture was shot on actual locations -- medieval churches, monasteries, and castles in Germany and the Czech Republic -- which give the film an impossible-to-replicate sense of authenticity. The film is quite dark, given that French-born cinematographer Robert Fraisse (who shot the sumptuous Vatel) had to rely frequently on natural light. Several scenes, including one of peasant women washing clothes in a river and another of churchgoers sitting in pews, have the exquisite, painterly quality of the great Dutch masters of the 17th century. Likewise, the sacred music which fills the film is beautiful and contributes greatly to its spirit and mood.
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