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IN SHORT: Depending on your background and historical religious training, 90% of a slam dunk epic. [Rated PG-13 for disturbing images of violence. 121 minutes]
We've reached the point in our life where we've been challenged to explain to the kidlets why studying history is fun. If you've had the standard, memorize a lot of names and places and dates education, your eyes are already rolling back in their sockets. We say "Martin Luther." You respond "95 Theses nailed to the door of a church kicked off the Protestant Reformation." If you said "Dead black guy we get a holiday for." you've still got a couple of years before high school graduation. Or pay attention
Picture a world where a secretive body controls the hearts and minds of the common people; whose Rules and Doctrines and common communicative language is one that only the powerful and highly educated can understand; whose lust for money extends to a practice of virtual blackmail – pay up or sentence your soul and the souls of all your family to burn in hellfire forever.
Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) lived in a time when religion was more valued than science -- else he would have known that anyone stuck in an open field during a lightning storm should hug the dirt, rather than stand up as a human lighting rod. In Luther's case, a bargain with God to save him from the lightning led to the eating of the dirt and thus the law student packed it in to become a monk. In the 16th century that's a miracle story. Roll with it.
Because of his highly educated status and background in things legal, Luther is sent to Rome. He finds a city filled with prostitutes catering to the monks and by vendors selling authentic relics and medallions and other trinkets with religious power. The most expensive of 'em all are Church authorized "indulgences," the equivalent of "get out of Hell, cheap" passes. Rome not being the place for an up and coming scholar, Luther is sent to teach at a new University in Wittenberg (Germany).
You don't need to know any of the philosophical underpinnings of the Church to follow the politics. Corruption is corruption and greed is plain as day.
The Pope, Leo XII (Uwe Ochsenknecht), determined to raise cash for the rebuilding of St. Peter's basilica, authorizes the hard selling Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina) to pitch so-called "special" indulgences, seemingly a one time only opportunity to save (your) beloved dead parents from burning in hell. Luther takes offense and puts his objections in writing -- the famous 95 Theses nailed to the church door. Thanks to a wondrous invention called Gutenberg's printing press, Luther's written objections are spread far and wide. The Church does not approve. The Inquisition summons the monk and, knowing full well that the summoning means Death, the local royals protect the young man. The best protection comes from the most powerful, Prince Frederick the Wise (Sir Peter Ustinov) who, when Luther refuses to recant in front of a Church court convened on the local turf, helps rally all the men of influence to protect the kid.
But the difficult choice to make, when adapting a life story to the two hour movie format, has always been whether to dramatize a series of greatest moments from that life or try to select the moments that tell the best narrative story and relegate all else to background material. Luther makes the assumption that we know the history and so links the high points in his life without showing much of the effects on the world around those events. This is also a budgetary problem since, unknown to us, thousands of people died in revolts against the church or royals backed by the church, something left out of our Cliff Notes style American education. Without that basic knowledge of the history (we can also blame it on the wrong kind of Sunday School) all the elements of epic are present and most of the faces tend to look the same. This becomes a great problem when the story shifts from religious argument to political alliances in the second half, with Luther a fugitive from Church justice. His work at that time-- to translate the New Testament from Latin to German so that all could see just how the Church was ripping them off -- is the stuff of dramatic revolution.
More to the plus side, Luther does not play out like the kind of documentary that bores kidlets silly and it has much more meat on its bones than any of the made for TV Biography programs seen on A&E.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Luther, he would have paid . . .
If you come from a Protestant background, you should find Luther to be a masterpiece. We watch from the dramatic end, and for us Luther comes pretty damned close to the same. You get more if you've got the background burned into you before seeing the story.
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