‘Luther’ valiantly tells tale of religious leader
At least the seventh filmed dramatization of Martin Luther’s life, a group including “Martin Luther” (1953) and John Osborne’s “Luther” (1974), the new British-German “Luther” plunges brain-first into a problem confronting all historical epics.
Attempting as it does to court first and foremost its core constituency of Lutherans, but also to appear to the broadest base possible of moviegoers, it necessarily condenses and simplifies so many issues, many of them philosophical and ideological, that it lapses into generalizations, sidestepping balance and subtleties.
Those at least somewhat familiar with its content will have a much easier time connecting the dots than others trying to make sense of what’s distilled into two hours spanning 1507-30 and involving about two dozen characters, all but one hardly introduced and barely defined.
Luther (1483-1546), played with tortured veracity by Joseph Fiennes, was an Augustinian monk and a theological scholar who gradually raised his voice against the Roman Catholic Church on several issues, including self-expression, salvation, Bible translations, the misapplication of beliefs regarding indulgences and iconography.
The screenplay by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan is lighter on lively intellectual and spiritual debate than Osborne’s version, although the textbook for all such scripts would properly be Robert Bolt’s dexterous and theologically valid drama about Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons.”
The latter favored the nuances of conscience and principle over the new “Luther’s” zeal for rebellion and righteousness.
Luther here is a populist hero, appealing to seemingly 100 percent of the German common folk.
He’s up against a Catholic Church that is abrasive, imperious, avaricious, arrogant, bureaucratic and insensitively authoritarian. Almost the only shading is shown through Martin’s sympathetic mentor, Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz).
Abrupt transitions suggest the challenges of the material. There’s little transition, for example, between a deeply conflicted Martin writhing in misery and then playing flip university humorist with a chorus of chuckles greeting his every remark.
Or the appearance of several renegade nuns, one of whom, Katharina (Claire Cox), becomes his bride before you can say, “What the …?” No crisis of faith there.
Brother John Tetzel (Alfred Molina), shown huckstering indulgences, appears to be the 16th-century equivalent of a TV evangelist.
Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony (Peter Ustinov), lacking a historical context, wants as painlessly as possible to protect Martin. Ustinov steals the film, deporting himself with the finesse of a wily old veteran.
Flawed and over-simplified as it may be, including a heavy-handed wild boar metaphor, “Luther” rouses thoughts about the value of convictions and the difficulty of setting oneself apart.
Too much may be compressed, but consider how little is being offered just about everywhere else.
Director : Eric Till
Stars : Joseph Fiennes, Peter Ustinov, Bruno Ganz
MPAA rating : PG-13 for disturbing images of violence
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