Even with Joseph Fiennes as a visceral, intellectual Martin Luther, the latest bigscreen take on the Christian reformer proceeds like a stultifying history pageant rather than a movie with a pulse of its own. The aura of the old Europudding brand of production hangs over “Luther” (written, directed and starring mostly Brits, and produced and crafted by mostly Germans). Niche auds of the faithful in North America and Europe are pic’s best target, but they’re more likely to find the film once it hits vid shelves.
Though not quite as popular as Jesus with moviemakers, Luther is one of the Christian heroes whose story has been told most frequently on film, with versions dating from the silent era (1927) to a Brit tube version starring Timothy West last year and now, the most lavish edition directed by Eric Till. “Luther” displays a yen for period accuracy that makes it far more viewable than the identically titled but extremely different 1976 version adapted by director Guy Green for the American Film Theatre from John Osborne’s play.
Conceptually, Camille Thomasson’s and Bart Gavigan’s script embraces a more sophisticated political and social perspective on Luther than Osborne’s dramatization, which was at its least convincing when it put the reformer into the playwright’s typical psychodrama slot as the young man railing against parental authority.
This “Luther” is fixed in his 16th century timeframe, when German intellectual and creative thought was blossoming, and found its religious outlet in Luther’s radical questioning of the Roman Catholic Church. The problem with “Luther” is finally not too little history but too much of it, condemning the movie to resemble an illustrated textbook of personalities, dates and places rather than being a vivid portrait of an active thinker.
Believing that he’s blessed after living through a (chintzy-looking) lightning storm, Luther joins the Augustinian order of monks, where he’s watched over by kindly Father von Staupitz (Bruno Ganz) but remains in terror of God’s judgment. Von Staupitz sends Luther to Rome, where he witnesses what he deems “a circus” of a church making money by exploiting the faithful. This feeling sharpens during a stint as a caustic and stylish lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, where Luther begins criticizing Rome for collecting “indulgences” (fees paid by Catholics to absolve themselves or loved ones of sins).
Just as Luther gains allies, such as the powerful and amusing Prince Frederick the Wise (Peter Ustinov in fine, brittle form) and fellow academic Carlstadt (Jochen Horst), he ever so slowly — as is this movie’s wont — gains enemies by the barrel. They start with Brother John Tetzel (Alfred Molina), who basically does a religious carny act pitching indulgences to the unwashed masses, and move up the power ladder to Cardinal Cajetan (Mathieu Carriere) and Pope Leo X (Uwe Ochsenknecht). Released from his monkish duties, Luther writes “95 Theses” attacking indulgences system, and soon finds himself in a war with the Papacy itself.
The dramatic core of this growing confrontation, however, gets lost as “Luther” drifts into long exchanges between obscure characters who lack the sharp introductions and through-lines needed to make them interesting. Script cries for a dramatist of the ilk of Robert Bolt who can combine the necessary research — plentifully noticeable here — with the equally needed poetics to effectively convey ideas.
Films and plays about Luther’s contest with the Vatican and the violence that sprouted from it consistently fail to capture this period’s issues and social movements; new version’s windy detailings, especially when they directly involve the Pope and the German king Charles V (Torben Liebrecht, laughably miscast), are of academic value only.
Things spring to life only in spurts, such as during Ustinov’s scenes, in which his Frederick explains his support for this difficult but intriguing young cleric, or during some of Fiennes’ more impassioned scenes as he clashes with his friends and authorities. A late, third-act romance between Luther and ex-nun Katharina (Claire Cox) is remarkably inert, and pic’s story doesn’t so much conclude as limply fade out.
Nonetheless, Fiennes is completely suited to the role of a devout man driven by a personal love of God to question stolid bureaucrats. Even when the script is lacking, Fiennes still suggests great, inner stirrings of conviction that give the movie a strong center. Molina, however, is on and off screen too quickly to make much of an impression. Very fine actors like Ganz and Carriere do what they can do, but audibly struggle with the English; other, lesser non-English thesps drown in the script’s wordiness.
Production is wrapped with rich but old-fashioned taste, from overly careful mise en scene to well-researched costumes to pseudo-serious religious music.