MGM // 2003 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // January 10th, 2005
Rebel. Genius. Liberator.
As far as influential religious figures go, Martin Luther is way the heck up there. From his ideas sprung the Protestant branch of Christianity, and the corrupt Church of his day was taken somewhat to task as being more political than pious. Luther was a flawed man, but a mover and shaker none the less. This biopic starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) attempts to analyze what it was that moved and shook him.
The 16th century in Europe saw some unprecedented power being wielded by the Church. Less a body of worship and more a big-time political player -- and a ridiculously wealthy one at that -- the Church exerted serious control over folks and their wallets, or gold pouches, or whatever scummy little peasants used to haul around their loot. And then the papal bigwigs implemented the system of indulgences, and people could suddenly spring their loved ones from purgatory, depending on how much coinage they ponied up...and the money flowed into the Church's deep pockets.
Meanwhile, a German monk named Martin Luther (Fiennes) was questioning his commitment to the cloth. Fresh off of getting zapped in the butt with a bolt of lightning, Luther committed himself to service in the church. Despite battling depression and the perceived abuses of Satan himself, Luther stuck with his education. He rose in prominence in his school, and gained a level of infamy for his passionate criticism of the Church's practices.
His struggle eventually led to the famous 95 Theses, his blow-by-blow indictment of the Church and its doctrines. Calling into question the proclamations of the Pope was unheard of, especially from a Holy Teammate of Luther's standing, and Christendom was rattled to its core.
The questions raised by Luther resonated with the people, and threw a monkey wrench into the plans of Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina, Spider-man 2), the traveling monk representing the Pope, out doing some hardnosed fundraising.
Faced with tough questions like "If the Pope has the power to free people from purgatory, why would he charge money for it?" the people stymied their cash flow. Suddenly, Luther was caught in the Holy crosshairs -- but anger from the Papal throne was the least he had to contend with. What he wasn't prepared for was the violent backlash his Reformation would produce, and the mortal danger facing his friends and supporters over his new look at Christianity.
I had some serious doubts about Luther. The opening credits revealed it was produced in some part by the company "Thrivent Financial for Lutherans." Was this going to be an impartial stab at a Luther biopic? Or nothing more than publicity material found in your local Lutheran church bookstore? Were the shady aspects of Luther's life going to be glossed over? How full a picture of this controversial and important man were we going to get?
As it turns out, Luther is a well-made, beautifully filmed, and solidly acted historical epic, which deals honestly with events that are both wonderful and tragic; events that show Christianity at both its highest and lowest.
Now, to reveal my entire hand, let it be known I probably wouldn't be worshipping at the church I do or practicing my theology were it not for this man. At the same time, I do not deify him; Martin Luther has a very checkered past, and has uttered some awful things (he has spouted some truly virulent anti-Semitism, a fact that the Lutheran church acknowledges and distances itself from).
The anti-Semitism is not touched upon in the movie, a fact that is both disappointing and understandable. It would have been a can of worms that may have stretched the film into four plus hours trying to unravel that mystery. However, the film refuses to portray Luther as this perfect, near-angelic being spanking the bad Roman Catholics.
His grapples with the Tempter are portrayed in dark, unsettling detail; his disposition is often hot and cold in the extremes; and his journey toward the Reformation is a conflicted one. But the most potent imagery is the violent backlash against the Reformation, which produced roving bands of German marauders persecuting Catholics and laying waste to the countryside. These deeply anti-Christian actions are vivid in Luther's shock and disgust over what his ideas had wrought.
The credit for Luther's strong characterization must be heaped upon Joseph Fiennes, who does an admirable job of bringing this complex historical figure to life. Luther was an important man who did important things, and Fiennes takes the role seriously.
Despite the strong start and the strong acting, the film as a whole petered out toward the end. Dramatically speaking, the narrative lost its bite, particularly after the sequence of Reformation-inspired violence. Which is a bummer, considering that arguably the most hard-hitting events of Luther's life happened in this period -- his translation of the Bible into German, a profound moment of linguistic and religious importance, and his marriage to Katharine von Bora, an ex-nun and an important player herself in the Reformation. Katherine's role is touched upon, but for the most part glossed over.
In the end, Luther proved to be an informative, somewhat-challenging biopic about a man whose importance to modern-day Protestantism can not be overstated, which falls just short of noteworthiness.
The movie looks great in a 1.85:1 widescreen format. It's a film made up of strong colors, and they bubble -- especially the ornate garb of the holy men or the contrast of dead peasants lying in the brown, blood-stained mud. A sharp 5.1 audio mix accompanies, though the surrounds don't see too much action. Some decent cast interviews and the trailer comprise the special features, a disappointment considering the wealth of history that could have been offered.
Luther brings some powerful, compelling moments to the table, though the whole doesn't quite end up being a heavy-duty as I would have expected. Still, it's recommended for the history, the acting, and the set design.
The accused is given a papal pardon.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Cast Interviews
* Official Site