October 31, 2004

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him

Happy Reformation Day!

On this date in 1517, a young Augustinian monk and priest by the name of Martin Luther, incensed by the exploitation of the poor by the Roman church in selling indulgences to build St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, nailed 95 theses for debate on the door of the church in Wittenberg, and in so doing touched off a religious wildfire that broke the religious monopoly of the Romanists. Earlier this week, I was surprised and pleased to see that the movie Luther had finally made it to local screens, and in honour of the occasion, this is my review.

Luther begins with the young Luther (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), trapped in a storm and scared nearly to death by a near lightning strike, crying out to St. Anne to save him, and he will become a monk. In the Augustinian monastery, he becomes so concerned with his own unworthiness before God that his confessor, Father Staupitz, admonishes him to throw himself upon the mercies of Christ, and sends him to the university in Wittenberg to pursue a degree in theology. While there, he becomes angry when a poor woman in his church shows him an indulgence she has purchased from the Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), for the sake of her crippled daughter. And the rest is history.

This movie is pretty much a straight biopic of Luther, being generally faithful to the events of his life, with perhaps a few dramatic liberties taken here or there. It treats Martin Luther respectfully, which is more than you can say for some dramatic treatments of his life (John Osborne's psychoanalytic play of the same name, for example, attribute's Luther's actions to his chronic constipation). But it is reverent without being fawning: Luther is portrayed as a very human man, suffering from depression, haunted by demons, and caught in a moral dilemma, supporting both sides (for different reasons) in the Peasants' War.

The acting in this film is superb: being a German production, the minor players are of German or East European origin, although the three principals - Fiennes, Molina, and Sir Peter Ustinov in one of his final rôles before his death this March - are all British. Fiennes' Shakespearean training suits him well for the rôle of Luther, particularly where oration is called for. Alfred Molina is suitably sleazy as the indulgence-peddling Tetzel. But far and away the best performance is Ustinov's portrayal of Frederick the Wise. He gets the best scene, in which he and his secretary (and Luther's friend) George Spalatin walk amongst his vast collection of religious relics, realizing that for all their cash value, they are utterly worthless. Ustinov's last scene, in which Frederick meets Luther at last and receives a copy of the German Bible from him, is also very touching.

Tim at Challies.com found Luther theologically weak. I disagree. Sure, it's theologically light: not being a comprehensive treatment of Luther's theology, there were many aspects of his life that the filmmakers could have touched on but didn't. But hey, it's a movie, constrained by time and dramatic concerns. Besides, I noticed that at least four of the five Solas got a mention at some point, often standing in contrast to the Roman system of works-righteousness as characterized by the selling of indulgences. But I'll go out on a limb and say that this is easily the most Christian film of the last several years. It's not just a movie about Jesus and his torture and execution on the cross; it actually explains why that was necessary and what the benefits are for the rest of us.

If you are reading this in Ottawa, Luther is still playing at the AMC theatre in Kanata, daily at 4:10pm. Go give them some business.