October, 2003, Drama

Having completed an examination of a Nazi-era theologian murdered by Hitler in the waning days of WW II, (Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace) three years ago, British-born director Eric Till now moves on to an earlier, pivotal figure in German religious history. In this carefully pious biography Ralph Fiennes plays the 16th priest who, with his famous theses nailed to a church door, ignited the historic challenge to Roman Catholic hegemony over Christianity. But the constrained dignity Fiennes brings to this towering personality, (which allows the screenwriters to clarify the complex circumstances which led to his rupture with Rome) ultimately fails to force the audience into caring about the perilous course Luther's life took after he refused to recant. On a pair of very important issues however, the carefully selected international cast succeeds in making Luther worthwhile for those with a special interest in Christian history.

Till's reverential production caustically describes the then popular practice of selling indulgences, which were used (with papal permission) by many members of the church hierarchy to finance the purchase of their positions. The practice, (bordering on outright witchcraft) was quietly tolerated by many church authorities unwilling to courageously defend the poor, who were its chief target. As personified by Luther's religious superior, (Bruno Ganz) the film manages to effectively convey the tension between fidelity to a flawed institution on the one hand and the necessity of renewing the Church's mission in the face of blatant abuses on the other. In Ganz's quiet, sorrowful abbot, (spiritual "father" to Luther) the audience finds a plausible rationale for gradual change rather than outright confrontation, a strategy Luther's conscience--or his pride--would not let him choose. The awful violence that followed may have horrified the embattled cleric, but it did not cause him to alter his approach. Yet Rome's insistence on complete intellectual/spiritual capitulation is also beautifully captured here, demonstrating that Luther struggled, (like St. Thomas Moore would in his later confrontation with Henry VIII) to avoid the rupture of the Church which Rome's imperious handling ultimately produced.  On this historical point, score one for the rebel.

In Peter Ustinov, playing Luther's political protector Frederick The Wise, the movie finds its most credible character--aging but crafty, and anxious to retain the luster of his now famous clerical scholar. He manipulates Luther's confrontation with Rome into a carefully orchestrated reach for greater freedom for Fredrick from the Church's involvement in what the latter saw as encroachments upon his royal prerogatives. Within two decades, what began as a rather straightforward attack on strictly religious issues, (the veneration of relics, indulgences, characterizations of the Almighty as vengeful rather than forgiving, etc.) morphed into bloody confrontation involving secular authority and who had the authority to wield it. Whether Luther viewed this development with the pained dispassion displayed here is a matter of some debate, but the Pandora's Box opened up by insisting that individual conscience must reign supreme in matters of personal religious belief and the metamorphosis of that conclusion into an individualism that fostered a climate of political rebellion are presented here with compelling clarity.

Luther may not be an exciting film to watch, but it tackles large issues without trepidation and clarifies a handful of them quite admirably. If the audience never identifies with Martin Luther personally, it certainly understands the underlying sources of his truculence.

A final, carping point; why must productions like this over-rely on English actors? Is Johnathan Firth, for example--fine actor though he is-- really the best choice to play a papal advisor named Cirolamo Aleandro? If the producers really wanted to demonstrate the over-reaching of Catholicism's then thoroughly Italian make-up, couldn't they have found a few actors of that nationality to play those roles? With that in mind, why cast Fiennes in the lead? Why not Klaus Maria Brandauer, for example? He'd have made a Luther worthy of this interesting but emotionally detached effort.



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