on September 26, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
In the opening moments of "Luther," a 16th-century law student is caught in a terrifying lightning storm and pledges to enter the monastery if his life is spared. The turbulent beginning only forecasts more stormy weather ahead: In scenes filmed with steep angles and rapid editing reflecting his state of mind, he is tortured by his sinful nature, even though his mentor assures him, "In two years I've never heard you confess anything remotely interesting." In his travels to Rome and further studies at Wittenberg, the friar witnesses the sale of indulgences and worship of relics--methods by which the church extorts money and controls its parishioners. Soon the young monk is no longer desperately seeking "a God whom I can love, a God who loves me," but bringing the promise of such a deity to the masses. Nailing his 95 Theses to the church door questioning these practices and translating the New Testament into German so that the common people can read it for themselves, Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) refuses to recant and is excommunicated from the Catholic church, thus birthing Protestantism and the denomination for which he is named. Today, according to the film, "540 million people have been inspired by his Reformation.

"Because Luther's life is rife with dramatic fodder, it has been difficult for the makers of this film to craft his story into a satisfying dramatic arc. Indeed, at the movie's climax--when the German princes defy their emperor by drawing up a confession of faith based on Luther's teachings--Luther isn't even there. The culminating moment, when he's told about it after the fact, is thus anticlimactic.

Yet this fascinating character sustains the film. Actor Fiennes, writers Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan and director Eric Till have done a laudable job of bringing this dusty historical character to life, exploring his spiritual torment in the beginning of the film, his irony and wit as he makes jabs at the church's teachings, his frustration as he translates the Good Book in isolation.

But by far the most delightful performance in "Luther" is delivered by Sir Peter Ustinov as Frederick the Wise, the elderly prince of Saxony who refuses to extradite Luther into the hands of those who would send him to the Inquisition. Initially an avid collector of the relics that Luther condemns, he is offered a piece for his collection in exchange for the troublemaking monk, and, in one of the film's most poignant scenes, he is genuinely pained that they think he would be so easily bribed. In a brilliant stroke, he plays to their expectations, acting the bumbling fool who is actually quite shrewdly manipulating his inexperienced emperor by flattering him to gain a fair trial for his charge. Ustinov here personifies stealing the scene. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox and Peter Ustinov. Directed by Eric Till. Written by Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan. Produced by Brigitte Rochow, Christian P. Stehr and Alexander Thies. An RS Entertainment release. Biographical drama. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images of violence. Running time: 122 min

Tags: Joseph Fiennes, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Firth, Claire Cox, Peter Ustinov, Eric Till, biopic, religion, faith

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