'Luther' explores the life of a church reformer

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

It's hard to imagine a better screen subject than Martin Luther, a central figure in Western religion whose life is fascinating on both biographical and historical levels.

This notwithstanding, only a few movies have explored his career, probably because the film industry treads lightly where matters of faith are concerned.

This is understandable, given the strong feelings aroused when people feel tenets of their religion have been presented in inaccurate or disparaging ways - note the noisy debates now raging over Mel Gibson's production "The Passion," which doesn't even open until next year. But such trepidations have deprived audiences of stories that might be controversial precisely because they're compelling, important, and deep.

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One filmmaker not so hesitant is Eric Till, whose credits include a movie about Mary and Joseph as well as one on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian. Mr. Till's new "Luther," starring Joseph Fiennes, plunges energetically into the 16th-century religious rebel's activities and philosophies. It dodges some significant issues in Luther's life, however, reducing its value as an educational film.

The story begins at a dramatic moment, as Luther's survival of a terrifying storm strengthens his belief in a benevolent God and inspires him to leave his law studies for training in an Augustinian monastery. Later he visits Rome, where he's horrified by a firsthand look at worldly decadence - and even more horrified by the Roman Catholic Church's response to such decadence, peddling guarantees of salvation for money.

Then he studies advanced theology in Germany and becomes a professor there. His suspicions of the church grow stronger when he learns of the pope's plan to finance an architectural project through aggressive marketing of the indulgences and absolutions that Luther denounces as mere pieces of paper.

Soon he writes his historic 95 Theses and finds himself at the center of a religious war when the church orders him to recant the views which, circulated via Guttenberg's printing press, have found a wide and enthusiastic following.

In addition to its imposing subject, "Luther" has a good cast, including Alfred Molina as a corrupt churchman, Peter Ustinov as an influential supporter of Luther, and Bruno Ganz as the young monk's mentor. What diminishes the movie is its avoidance of Luther's dark side. His lifelong struggle with depression is only hinted at, and his anti-Semitic attitudes are left out entirely.

The actual Luther was a flawed man as well as a great religious warrior, and a fully rounded portrait of him would honestly face this fact, making us feel the human challenges he contended with as well as the Protestant revolution he inaugurated.

Not rated; contains violence.

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