Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Luther – Going With His Conscience and Going Against His Religion

Written by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan
Directed by Eric Till

As we are on the cusp of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issuing a statement on the blessing of same sex unions and the rostering of open and active gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships, it seems appropriate timing that the DVD of Luther, the man who started it all, made it’s way into my queue at Netflix and thus into my home.

Joseph Fiennes portrays Martin Luther, the man for whom my religion is named. He is a priest at a time when the Roman Catholic church is selling indulgences – allowing people to buy their way into heaven. His portrayal is good, for Luther has taken the fear of being a sinner almost to an obsessive point, convinced he could never do enough to redeem himself in the eyes of God. Yet this is the man who rises up to challenge the corrupt mother church in his time and create the first branch of what was to become a spider web of religions intertwining in what we call “Christianity”.

If Jewish people could complain that The Passion of the Christ was anti-Semitic, Roman Catholics could easily complain this movie was a swipe at them. Director Eric Till pulls no punches showing the corruption of a rich church granting favors to those who would give them money while at the same time locking the poor out and bringing them to their knees both financially and with guilt, making them believe that the Church is their only hope of salvation. Everything was for sale in Rome: sex, religious trinkets, even salvation. When he is sent to preach in Wittenburg, he encounters commoners afraid of the approach of a clergyman as they see it as an attempt by the church to shake them down.

Luther struggles with what he sees as a social injustice. He also struggles with the role of the Roman church versus the Greek church, wondering if salvation can exist outside the Roman church but still within Christ.

Those who see God as angry… do not see him rightly… But look upon a curtain as if a dark storm cloud has been drawn across his face… if we truly believe that Christ is our savior… then we have a God of love… And to see God in faith is to look upon his friendly heart…

What is one man to do? The first bit of rebellion against the church’s teachings shows up when a boy commits suicide and Luther defiantly buries him in the church cemetery, believing God is merciful to those whom the devil would entice to do something like that. He begins teaching the priests in Wittenburg and questions the practice of selling Indulgences with humor, making the divinity students see just how absurd the practice is. When a visiting priest (Alfred Molina) terrorizes the poor into giving their much-needed money to him for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, Luther is driven to action.

Luther goes on to change religion as we know it. He takes on translating a bible into a common language so that everyone may read the Bible for themselves and find their own path to God without being told what they should believe and feel when it comes to the Almighty. Part of his rise is due to timing; there may have been priests before him who felt as he did but didn’t have the availability of the printing press to get the message out.

I thought the performances were terrific. Joseph Fiennes gives Martin Luther a passion that I would have never thought he had with the dull depiction of him in the history books. Even in my Lutheran Confirmation class, we weren‘t given much of a historical perspective on the rise of our church. This DVD should be shown to all Confirmation classes, but especially Lutheran ones. There are moments, such as when the crippled child walks to him, that are there to tug at our emotions. Fiennes does a terrific job although I think these moments are the less fact-based ones. I think my own skepticism at these scenes left me unmoved, rather than Fiennes’ performance.

Peter Ustinov, as Frederick the Wise, is terrific. He stands behind Luther completely and has a powerful moment when he rejects all the relics given to him by Rome. He has a deeper understanding of just how the world works, and most of those around him dismiss him as an addled man. Ustinov gives the role the right amount of subtlety and an edge of humor.

Jonathan Firth is the “villain” in Luther as the ambitious Girolamo Aleander whose allegiance to Rome is depicted not as a spiritual allegiance but as a desire for power and position.

As far as the charges of an anti-Roman Catholic bias, Luther is a depiction of what happened, just as The Passion of the Christ was. It is up to us what we do with the information we’re given. If we let The Passion of the Christ turn us to hating all Jewish people, then we are at fault. If we harbor a hatred of all things Roman Catholic after viewing Luther, then it is our fault for taking that message away from the film, and not the one of God’s love of which Martin Luther is so certain.

The cinematography is beautiful. Maybe too beautiful. I doubt that the streets of Rome or these small towns were as beautiful and clean as they are now. The picture clarity is stunning, and the lighting effects used inside the various monasteries and churches convey the anguish of the times. Till did a great job with a limited budget. The costumes are also good, with cardinals and priests in their fancy robes contrasting with peasants whose feet are wrapped with dirty rags.

Liberties are taken with what is known about Luther. He wrote of “almost” spilling the wine when saying his first mass, here he does spill it. Rumors have abounded that his motivation for becoming a priest was being struck by lightning, here it is so. My other complaint is that the movie focuses on the theology of the selling of indulgences as the primary difference in theology, while Luther extrapolated this to the “justification not by works, but by faith alone” philosophy. That is only briefly touched on in favor of the more fiery and less controversial (at least in modern times) practice of indulgences.

Just about anyone should see this and understand what happens when the church gets too powerful. In an age when some denominations seem to believe that bigger and more fanciful churches are their mission, this is a humbling message. To me, the message it conveys is more powerful than The Passion of the Christ and more timely. I sure hope those in the ELCA who are about to craft recommendations on the issue of homosexuality within the church have watched and appreciated what Luther himself did. He took on conventional thinking to take an unpopular stand based on what he believed came from the love in God’s heart, not the judgment of man.

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