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Getting serious in church

Unlike Hollywood's soft 1950s epics, modern religion-themed films tend to draw fire and brimstone. 'Luther' takes a fresh look at Reformation leader.

September 26, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Religious movies have been a favorite of filmmakers since the early days of cinema. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille specialized in this genre, making two versions of "The Ten Commandments" along with such religious sagas as "The King of Kings," "The Sign of the Cross" and "The Crusades." And over the years, Hollywood has produced such lavish, respectful epics as "The Robe," "Quo Vadis," "Ben Hur," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

Those movies rarely ruffled any feathers. But in recent years, religious-themed movies have become a hard sell, often incurring the wrath of organized religions. The Monty Python comedy troupe was roundly condemned for its irreverent comedy about the early days of Christianity, "The Life of Brian"; Martin Scorsese was depicted as akin to the anti-Christ for his drama "The Last Temptation of Christ"; and Kevin Smith was so criticized for his religious satire "Dogma" that the original distributor, Miramax, dropped it. Now Mel Gibson is being put through the wringer by various religious groups for his yet-unreleased "The Passion," his controversial look at the last 12 hours in the life of Christ.

Against this backdrop comes "Luther," a $30-million German-American co-production (some of that money comes from an organization with roots in the Lutheran Church) that opens in 400 theaters nationwide today. The film focuses on the life and times of Martin Luther, the 16th century Roman Catholic monk who, appalled at the corruption in the church, was instrumental in bringing about the Protestant Reformation. "Luther," which stars Joseph Fiennes in the title role, has all the hallmarks of a religious movie -- but don't mention the "R" word to anyone involved with the film.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Religious film -- A Sept. 26 Calendar article on the movie "Luther" gave the wrong name of a French film based on the life of St. Vincent de Paul. The correct name of the film is "Monsieur Vincent," not "Diary of a Country Priest."

"I don't know what a religious drama means," says Sir Peter Ustinov, who plays one of Luther's most steadfast supporters, Germany's Prince Frederick the Wise. Ustinov is no stranger to historical religious epics. As Nero, he threw the Christians to the lions in the 1951 film "Quo Vadis."

"I think 'Luther' is more of a political movie, personally," Ustinov says. "The interesting thing about Luther was that he started the Reformation because, in his view, the Catholic Church was not Catholic enough. He was a purist who believed the Word."

"Luther" screenwriter Bart Gavigan sees his film more in the line of Robert Bolt's drama "A Man for All Seasons," which examined the struggle and battle of wills between Sir Thomas More and his good friend King Henry VIII, set against the backdrop of the British monarch's break with the Catholic Church. Just as with "A Man for All Seasons," as well as such films as "Anne of a Thousand Days" and Bolt's "The Mission," the religious aspects of "Luther" are filtered through political ramifications.

"I am a Christian, but I would be very unhappy if people actually experienced my films as religious in a narrow way," Gavigan says. "What I hope to do in film is to achieve some red-blooded characters who are human beings before they are anyone else. My whole thrust was to take it out of the world of a bio and into the world of epic film and give it an intensity of the journey. It has all the natural elements of the epic genre."

Randy Slaughter, whose S Entertainment is distributing the film, also likens the movie to "A Man for All Seasons" and has been advertising "Luther" on such varied cable networks as A&E and the History Channel. He calls "Luther" a "movie about one man who took on the powers of society."

As the film opens, Luther has changed his vocation from a law student to an Augustinian monk. Because his father is angry at his son's decision, Luther turns to his spiritual mentor, Father Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz). Impressed with the young man's fervor, Staupitz picks him to be part of a group of monks going to Rome on church business. But instead of being impressed with what he sees in the Eternal City, Luther is appalled at what he believes is depravity, most especially "indulgences," where the Vatican offers "certificates" to Catholics that forgive sins for a price. And for a fee, they can free themselves or a deceased relative from hell.

After his stint in Rome, Luther is sent for more study to a new university in Wittenberg and later becomes a professor of theology there. When Pope Leo X decides to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica, he decides to fund the undertaking by selling indulgences, and Brother John Tetzel (Alfred Molina) is sent around Germany to intimidate the people into buying them. Angered by Leo's plan, Luther writes his "95 Theses," criticizing the church, and nails it to the local church's door. The pope orders Luther to recant, but he refuses. He takes refuge with Frederick the Wise and becomes an outlaw for the remainder of his life. But he also became a hero to the masses, and the new "Protestant" movement takes hold.

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