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'Luther,' the blockbuster theologian

There's silliness in fitting the great church reformer into the usual formula (the dialogue, the romantic subplot), but it has its appeal.

September 26, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Rebel. Genius. Liberator." Who could those movie poster words possibly describe? A new Vin Diesel action hero? A different kind of secret agent? Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? Good guesses, but wrong, wrong, wrong. The answer is "Luther."

After a summer of numbing mindlessness, there is something frankly refreshing about a movie that deals even superficially with as significant a figure as the rebellious 16th century theologian Martin Luther, one of the founders of Protestantism and the man who put the reform in the Reformation.

Directed by Eric Till, written by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan and partially funded by Lutheran groups, "Luther" is also kind of a throwback, an echo of the old-style biopics like "Wilson," "Madame Curie" and "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" Hollywood used to make before they decided every hero needed a girlfriend and brainy protagonists gave moviegoers a headache.

This doesn't mean you ought to be expecting a work that matches its subject in seriousness. Not even close. The clunky "Luther" is not a film to nail to the doors of Hollywood studios to let them know how it should be done or even something that might get shown on movie night at the Vatican.

The acting is undeniably spotty (though Joseph Fiennes is convincing in the title role and Peter Ustinov remains a charmer at age 83), and there is no lack of dialogue howlers. When his enemies complain, "My god, who is this Martin Luther?," when his friends advise him (and they really do), "Just try to keep your big mouth shut," when the great man himself admits, "Most days I'm so depressed I can't get out of bed," it is hard to keep a straight face.

Yes, it's silly, but somehow mockery seems beside the point. What refugee from the doings of Lara Croft and company won't be stimulated by even a cartoon version of what is in truth quite the story, the epic of how a single-minded German theologian took on the most powerful force in the Western world, the Roman Catholic Church, and came out ahead.

Any film that believes, as this one does, that "ideas can set the world on fire," that is willing to illustrate, even in a simplistic way, passionate arguments about whether "salvation can exist outside the church but not outside of Christ," has enough going on to hold our attention.

We meet Luther in 1506 as a young Augustinian monk riven by doubts and too overwhelmed to celebrate mass. His kindly superior, Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) tells him he's being too hard on himself. "Arguing with the devil never does anyone any good," the good father advises. "He's had 5,000 years of practice."

A trip to Rome, where among other things he sees brothels set up specifically for the clergy, is a turning point in Luther's life. "Rome is a circus, a running sewer," he rages on his return. "You can buy anything there, even salvation." Here are the seeds of what came to be one of Luther's most heretical beliefs, that salvation was the result of faith, not bought-and-paid-for good works.

While Luther moves on to the university of Wittenberg and becomes a professor of theology, a new pope, Leo X, takes over in Rome. Worried that "the French are yapping at my heels," Leo needs money to rebuild St. Peter's, so he sends out his most successful fund-raiser, Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina).

Tetzel's technique is to frighten the masses and then sell indulgences, pieces of paper that allegedly freed them and/or their loved ones from the torments of hell. "When a coin in the coffer rings," Tetzel is fond of saying, "a soul from purgatory springs."

Incensed in general and because a simple-minded local woman and her crippled child have been deluded into spending their last pfennigs, Luther writes his famous "95 Theses." That in turn irks the pope. "This drunken little German monk is intoxicated with himself," he decrees. "Sober him up."

Luther is helped in his battle with the Vatican by the friendship he has forged with his protector and employer, the droll Prince Frederick the Wise (Ustinov). The prince, understanding that it is in his interest to see less money and influence flowing to Rome, sees this as a political as well as a religious issue. And when Luther begins a groundbreaking translation of the Bible into German so laypeople can read it in their own language, his ideas take on a nationalistic tinge as well.

While "Luther" has more than its share of foolishness (Luther's courtship of his eventual wife is not a great moment in cinema), one of the things it does best is capture the conviction of this iconoclast who believed that "if we live the word by faith in love and service to one another, we need fear no man's judgment."

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