Film Reviews


By • Sep 24th, 2003 •

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Running time: 112 minutes

If you think the Catholic Church could not possibly survive the devastating sex abuse scandal it is in the throes of, consider that the Church has undergone yet prospered through three stunning historical blows: The Great Schism of 1054 (there are now 200 million Orthodox Christians not under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church); the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses of protest on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517), and Henry Vlll’s formation of The Church of England (Henry was excommunicated on Dec. 17, 1538).

I’ve studied the writings and life of Martin Luther. He was brilliant. He was fascinating. He was not the dull creature memorialized by Joseph Fiennes.

Here is the quick historical version. Martin Luther, through pressure from his parents, was preparing to study civil law. His father had envisioned an influential career in politics for his eldest son. On July 2, 1505, in a field on the way to his university, Luther was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. He was struck by lightning and thrown to the ground. Luther’s companion was killed at his side. Close to death, he cried out: “Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk.”

On July 15, 1505 – 13 days later – without discussing his plans with anyone, Luther went to the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits and asked to join the order. His decision destroyed all plans for a future and career yet fulfilled his vow to St. Anne. In time Luther’s horror at the abuses of Pope Leo X regarding relics and indulgences would catapult him onto the world stage and ignited what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated from the Church. He had powerful friends, went into exile, married a former nun and had six children. He had a lifelong, intimate battle with Satan. He was a provocateur.

I do not agree with Luther regarding the adoration of relics and the selling of indulgences. I have several precious first-class relics (including a relic of the True Cross) and a house shrine. The poor had no doctors. The poor did not have health insurance. Sometimes, placing a fragment of a saint’s bone on a very sick person healed them. It was all the people had. Everyone wanted a speck of one (and relics are mere specks of bone).

If rebels kidnapped your elderly sick mother and kept her in the dirt in a jungle for a year, would you balk at paying $2,000 for her release? In the Middle Ages, people actually believed in the reality of Purgatory, Heaven and Hell as we believe in the existence of Paris, London, and Kansas. Indulgences were “ransom.” It gave people comfort. Maybe it worked. Unfortunately, this is not the venue to discuss indulgences, plenary or otherwise, though I would love to!

Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) is caught in a field in a thunderstorm and nearly gets hit by lightning. He shouts out that he will become a monk. His father is angry with him. He closes himself away in a monastery though his brilliance is acknowledged and nurtured by his mentor, Johann von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz).

Luther becomes a scholar and university professor. Staupitz encourages Luther to travel to Rome whereby he is shocked at the selling of indulgences to fund the restoration of St. Peter’s. Leo X (named cardinal deacon at age thirteen, not, as haughtily mentioned in the film, a full-fledged cardinal), historically an intensely educated theologian (tonsured at the age of seven), was extravagant, devious, and politically cunning. He also sold cardinal hats and Church furniture. He needed lots of money to support his lifestyle and Church projects (that tourists have rejoiced over for hundreds of years.)

Leo X sends out a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina) to sell indulgences. Tetzel is riveting. He draws crowds. He is pure entertainment in a world where people spent their evenings looking at the dirt. He captivated the people with his showmanship. He was probably worth every penny.

It saddens me to see well-known and beloved elderly actors working. Don’t Tony Randall (“Down With Love”), Bob Newhart (“Legally Blonde 2”), and Kirk Douglas (“It Runs in the Family”) have enough money saved from decades in the business? Are family members wheeling them onto movie sets? Peter Ustinov’s acting here, as Friedrich the Wise, is strained and borders on parody. He makes about two hundred faces per scene.

I do not know why the German people embraced Luther’s proposals. To the poor, an official document from the Church must have been a talisman of enormous power and comfort.

Luther is aided by influential princes against the Church who were no doubt fed up with Pope Leo’s empire building. Luckily for Luther, a small group of runaway nuns come to seek his help. Katharina (Claire Cox) hunts Luther like a fox. She’s a sexed-up nun with an agenda.

The failure of “Luther” rests on Joseph Fiennes maudlin interpretation of the man. His Luther is not up to the task at hand: crushing the mighty power of the Catholic Church. Luther was psychologically complex, troubled, and defiant in his resolve to tame the Church.

And further, here was a monk who, even though excommunicated, married a former nun, which caused another galloping scandal. Concurrently, his bouts – loud, physical and obstinate – with Satan continued throughout his life. What are we to make of a man who boasts to Satan: “But if that is not enough for you, you Devil, I have also shit and pissed; wipe your mouth on that and take a hearty bite.”

Martin Luther: Joseph Fiennes
Johann Tetzel: Alfred Molina
Cirolamo Aleandro: Jonathan Firth
Katharina von Bora: Claire Cox
Friedrich: Peter Ustinov

Directed By: Eric Till
Written by Written by Bart Gavigan and Camille Thomasson
Based on the play by John Osborne

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