Mark Reviews Movies


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Eric Till

Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Peter Ustinov, Bruno Ganz, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Claire Cox, Mathieu Carrière, Marco Hofschneider

MPAA Rating:  (for disturbing images of violence)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 9/26/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

There's almost nothing more boring than history without passion. Luther is so concerned with events that it forgoes ideas, and when your subject is famous for his ideas, ignoring them is doing a great disservice. The movie meanders from scene to scene without context or proper motivation, and characters appear with nary an introduction and exist solely to serve their purpose of getting Martin Luther from point A to point B. As Luther endures challenge after challenge, eventually whatever ideas were present become bogged down in tediousness and jumbled narrative. Screenwriters Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan simplify matters to a point verging on insult. From what we learn here, Luther wrote and nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of a church in Wittenberg because a poor peasant woman with a handicapped daughter bought into the idea of plenary indulgences. Personally, I'd rather the movie had suggested that he wrote and posted his views because he was bored one night and thought it'd be a funny prank to pull on his superiors. It'd be horribly dishonest, yes, but extravagant lies are at least more interesting than bland, simplified truth.

We first meet Luther (Joseph Fiennes) traveling down a path alone while being assaulted by the elements. If he survives the storm, he promises to devote his life to God. After making it through the storm, Luther becomes a monk but has trouble adjusting to life at the monastery. To help ease Luther into his new lifestyle, his mentor Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) sends him on a delivery to Rome. The streets of Rome are full of vice, including prostitutes whose work is devoted entirely to the clergy, and the Church itself offers people the chance to save their souls by staring upon ancient, holy relics or the souls of their loved ones by paying an indulgence and crawling up the stairs of the church praying as you go. The sight does not bode well on Luther, who returns to the monastery even more cynical than before. Von Staupitz sees potential in this outraged, intelligent monk and decides to send him to school in Wittenberg to help give him intellectual support for his ideas. There Luther is surrounded by uneducated peasants who blindly follow the dogmatic law they do not understand, and when newly elected Pope Leo XII (Uwe Ochsenknecht) wants a new basilica, the selling of indulgences becomes even more widespread.

It eventually leads to the events we all know, but scene after scene plays without any real context. Perhaps most troubling to the material is how shallow the character of Luther is. It's a perplexing move on the part of the screenwriters, who try to force depth where there is little and more or less ignore the depth that is inherently present. He rants and raves to the devil in the confines of solitude, which in the hollow framework here points more toward psychological problems than religious devotion. There's very little of Luther present in the movie. Physically, he is not on screen in the overwhelming number of scenes in which people talk about him—scenes that soon blend together as the repetitiveness of dialogue proposing to silence Luther starts to show—and ideologically, Luther's principals and views are merely hinted at throughout. Not surprisingly, it is the scenes in which Luther is allowed to actually speak his mind that lend the appearance of a fully developed character. However, these scenes are few and too far between to make a real impact on his presentation in the movie, and only his speech at the Diet of Worms is fully successful in this regard.

Instead, the screenwriters throw in obligatory dialogue near the end of the movie in which he admits that he is depressed because of the results of his actions. It's an awkward and ineffective attempt to make Luther into a tragic hero and an easy way out. Why not focus on the fact that he wanted to unite the Church and ended up being the impetus for its first great schism? That ironic fact alone is enough to add some tragedy to his character and much more believable historically. Joseph Fiennes does some admirable work in the role, passionate in the rare speeches and able to convincingly tip-toe around the lack of character development with smart choices. The entire movie is lacking development, though, so it's a welcome change when one of Luther's followers twists his words to turn them into something far more inflammatory, leading to an extensive, violent uprising. The turn allows for some irony in that it's similar to what Luther perceives the Roman Catholic Church has done in to Christian Scripture. Ultimately, that revolt results in fifty to a hundred thousand dead peasants, which would seem to me to be important, but the movie doesn't give a second thought to it afterward.

Luther was a man decidedly of his time, when knowledge and reason were becoming increasingly more important than blind faith. We have hints of his timeliness throughout Luther, but at the end when there's a brief scrolling statement telling us of Luther's influence on the world, instead of reinforcing everything that's come before it, its presence is necessary to remind us that the Martin Luther of the movie is the same as the one from the history books.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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