This fall, the big screen spotlights religion

'Luther,' which debuts Sept. 26, is one of several new films that focus on religion or question institutional authority.

As a way of putting scandalous institutional practices into historical context, "Luther" couldn't be more timely.

The movie, about the first successful challenge to Roman Catholicism, opens Sept. 26, the latest in a string of films that are either about religion or question religious authority.

Among them are the recently released horror-fantasy "The Order," about a renegade religious cult; "The Magdalene Sisters," about abuse in asylums run by Irish-Catholics; the three-hour epic, "Gospel of St. John," which premièred at the Toronto Film Festival this month; and Mel Gibson's much-ballyhooed adaptation of Jesus's last 12 hours in "The Passion," shot in ancient Aramaic and Latin. Gibson hopes it will debut this spring.

Next month, "Sister Helen," a lively documentary about a salty 69-year-old Benedictine nun, who surmounted her own personal tragedies and ran a shelter for substance abusers in the south Bronx will be released in theaters and on HBO.

"Luther," directed by Eric Till and starring Joseph Fiennes, is a heavily scored action-adventure film about the German monk whose critique of Catholicism launched the Reformation in the early 16th century and led to the birth of Protestantism.

"In a recent Life Magazine poll about the most influential people in the last millennium, Luther came out ahead of Christopher Columbus, Galileo, and Leonardo da Vinci," says Dr. Martin Marty, coauthor of a six-volume study of militant fundamentalism and of the forthcoming Penguin biography of Luther.

The film depicts Luther's pilgrimage to Rome, the writing of his 95 theses, and his refusal to recant. It ends at a historic moment for Europe, when Germany's princes defy the alliance of church and state.

One such prince was Luther's mentor, Frederick the Wise, played by Sir Peter Ustinov with his customary wit and savvy.

"Luther started the Reformation, really, because he found Rome not Catholic enough," said Mr. Ustinov via phone from Switzerland. "He was very annoyed by the special favors you could ask the church. Like a box office, you could book your seats in heaven - if you paid enough. And translating the Bible into German opened the floodgates, because there was no longer a monopoly of Latin."

Luther translated the New Testament from Latin in just 11 weeks, enabling Germans to read the Bible for themselves.

"Luther wasn't the most orthodox kind of revolutionary," says the urbane Ustinov, chuckling. "Especially since he set up house with a defrocked nun.

"I see him as someone who was more logical and believed in a more human approach to the Deity, and disliked the pageantry, the theatricality of Rome," Ustinov continues. "Which coincided with a majority of taste in Germany."

From his vantage point as ambassador-at-large for UNICEF, Ustinov is spearheading a fight against intolerance and prejudice through his own foundation that examines the impact of prejudices on people and politics, a project that has earned him three university chairs in Vienna; Budapest, Hungary; and Durham, England.

This is also the topic of his upcoming book, "Achtung! Vorurteile" (Beware Prejudices), written in German.

Broad cultural roots

Ustinov was born in London. His mother was French, his father German, and his ancestors Russian. That diverse background, combined with his command of six languages, has given him an unusually broad cultural and life experience.

Ustinov has done his homework on Rome, having produced "Inside the Vatican," a six-part series for Canadian TV that examined the politics of the Vatican.

"At the press conference a long time ago now," says Ustinov, "I was asked why they allowed me to do it since I've been divorced, and I'm not a Catholic.... And I said, well maybe that was the reason....

"I'm not at all ecclesiastical," Ustinov says. "In fact, I've written, in my new book and also in a musical work for Orchestra and Speaker, that really ancient Greece had the only democratic religion, in which you could pray to whichever god you wanted. It was like a cabinet. And curiously enough, democracy in civic affairs, in lay affairs, has become now extremely dominant as an idea.

"At the same time," Ustinov continues, "the idea of monotheism has become a virtual autocracy of various religions, with the disastrous results we can see in the Middle East and everywhere else."

And evil loses, by a nose

In the course of his prodigious career, Ustinov has famously starred as Hercule Poirot in "Death on the Nile" and Herod in Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth."

But he doesn't think biblical or religion-based movies necessarily offer the viewer a spiritual experience.

"That's the fault of the Hayes Code and various forms of enforcement of taste," says Ustinov, "during which religious films became a photo finish between God and Satan, in which, for the sake of the Hayes Code, God had to win in the last two seconds."

Battles with or within the church, on or off the screen, have changed quite a bit in modern times.

"What Luther had to fight about," says Dr. Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister, was the question: "Is God a judge who whomps us unless we buy our way into salvation, or is God a gracious giver? And on that there's so much agreement [among theologians] that there couldn't be a battle today. That's the big difference."

A monk, but not a saint

But Marty says that we still live off Luther's then-new concept of individual freedom of conscience.

"Now complicating that, of course," says Marty, "is that as a medieval man some of the things he stood for and did are very shocking and abrasive to our present world."

For example, afraid that a peasant revolt of the 1520s would lead to anarchy in Germany, Luther told the princes to kill the peasants. Thousands died. The movie covers this tragedy, but also his stand against religious oppression.

"He stands up to pope and emperor," says Marty. "He's a major contributor to the enlargement of human freedoms by breaking up that single dominant system and by placing so much value on individual conscience over and against the church."

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