Tuesday, September 30, 2003

“Luther” opened quietly in area theaters this past weekend with little fanfare or advance notice.

With all the shouting provoked by Mel Gibson’s “Passion,” maybe a biopic about the 16th-century monk who helped found Protestantism sounded like a bit of a snore.

If the kibitzers took their noses out of smuggled copies of Mr. Gibson’s controversial script, however, they would find plenty of juicy tidbits between the lines of “Luther,” which stars Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther, the German theologian who broke ranks with Rome and sparked the Reformation of European Christendom.

Namely: the depiction of the Catholic Church as little more than a Continental kleptocracy; a complete gloss-over of Luther’s record of anti-Semitic remarks; a redaction of his obsession with things anal (save for one passing reference to the old boy having trouble moving his bowels).

Directed by Eric Till, “Luther” was bankrolled in part by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a faith-based financial services organization, which helps explain the no-warts reverence and the scanty promotion budget.

Luckily, Luther’s story, even without the warts, makes for decent drama. The guy had guts to spare and was a bona fide revolutionary. “Rebel. Genius. Liberator” is how the marquee describes Luther. In his case, it’s even true.

An Augustinian monk, he risked livelihood and, later, limb not only by bucking Rome’s policy of “indulgences” — basically, the policy of “your money or your soul” — but by carefully teasing out a more liberal, humanistic reading of the apostle Paul’s doctrine of salvation.

“Justification by faith,” as Luther read the apostle’s Epistle to the Romans, meant that while no one deserves God’s grace, He’s merciful enough to grant it anyway — a more tolerant interpretation than the deeds-centered doctrine of medieval Catholicism.

For such teachings, Luther was branded a heretic and excommunicated, but not before inspiring a deadly peasant revolt in pre-national Germany and kicking off the Reformation.

Mr. Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”) probably wasn’t the best casting — he’s too delicate, not nearly German enough — but he does a dignified job with the material he was presented.

Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan’s script took a few glaring liberties for storytelling purposes. Priests, for instance, did not give the kind of conversational sermons common in churches today.

Claire Cox, as Katharina von Bora, the runaway nun whom Luther married, emerges late in the game and didn’t deserve a top billing.

The great Sir Peter Ustinov, as the politically shrewd Luther ally Prince Frederick the Wise, is the unsung star of the movie. He brings a cheeky humor to the leadenly somber proceedings.

“Luther” would have been richer had it explored more deeply how Luther’s ideas ramified into politics and economics.

When commoners no longer need priests to intercede with God and when they can read the Bible in their own tongue (Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German vulgate was itself a radical stroke), individualism — of both the economic and expressive varieties — can’t be far behind.

It would have been edifying, too, to learn why Luther felt so beset by Satan and demons or why he so doubted his salvation — psychological afflictions that at least partly inspired his search for a lenient God in Paul, in tension with the works-emphasizing book of James, which Luther downplayed.

“Luther” hints at an overbearing and judgmental father, but Luther’s history before 1506, where the movie begins, is the stuff of speculation.

His history after 1506? No speculation necessary. We’re living with its consequences right now.


TITLE: “Luther”

RATING: PG-13 (Disturbing images of violence, corpses)

CREDITS: Directed by Eric Till. Produced by Kurt Rittig, Brigitte Rochow and Alexander Thies. Written by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan. Original music by Richard Harvey. Cinematography by Robert Fraisse.

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes.


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