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Luther (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 26 September 2003
“Luther” is a historical drama that is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it deals with one of those enormous tide-turning events that everybody knows happened, though most people haven’t got the foggiest idea of how or why; for another, it is made with genuine passion that shines through even some of the more overwrought areas. Finally, thanks to cinematographer Robert Fraisse and production designer Rolf Zehetbauer, it looks fairly terrific – there are moments when we seem to be watching a Rembrandt painting brought to life.

The one thing that just about everybody knows about Martin Luther is that he had an entire branch of Christianity named after him. Many people know also that he angered the Catholic Church of his day – the first part of the 17th century – by nailing a list of complaints to a church door. Luther (Joseph Fiennes) starts out as a devout young German priest who loves God, teaching, his religious brethren and people in general. He is appalled when, on a pilgrimage to Rome, he witnesses the selling of “indulgences,” a practice whereby people can literally buy their way out of sins. It’s a pretty effective fundraising technique for the Church, but Luther finds it outrageous – if indeed the Church has the power of absolution that it claims, why not forgive out of love than for profit? The Church quickly finds Luther objectionable, but the priest has an unasked-for ally in his corner, Prince Frederick (Sir Peter Ustinov), who likes the notion of having a figure of intelligence in his kingdom and starts to get prickly about being told what to do with his own subjects by Rome.

Director Eric Till and screenwriters Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan take full advantage of the fact that most of their viewers have no idea what happened to Luther as a consequence, which allows them to build up a fair amount of suspense as to whether or not Luther will fall to the Inquisition, which is in full cry during this period. (That Lutheranism flourished later is no indication of Luther’s personal fate.) Generating real emotion is harder than it sounds, as “Luther” in some respects is a tremendously respectful film, sometimes too much for its own good. Characters have a real sense of their own importance – granted, this isn’t too unexpected for popes and princes – and tend to speak rather like people in ‘50s dramas and ‘60s agitprop stage plays. Some scenes are so theatrical, with pauses for the weighty matters to sink in, that they border on silliness. An extended cameo by Alfred Molina as a priest who uses fire and brimstone tactics to solicit church donations, although Molina himself is excellent, winds up being perhaps too funny for its own good – when his character Tetzel says “These priests are standing by,” we can’t help but think he’s inventing the telethon a few hundred years early. Even so, the filmmakers actually keep our curiosity engaged and, with Fiennes, generate a lot of sympathy for their principled hero.

Luther, at least, is not shown thinking in terms of global consequence, but simply his own conscience, and he’s allowed to be a bit nuts – when he’s by himself, in a state of sheer terror at the prospect of being burnt by the Church, he convinces himself that Satan, rather than self-preservation, is whispering in his ear. Fiennes invests Luther with a passionate earnestness that makes us believe that he is fully consumed by the issues that cause him to take the actions he does.

Then again, the script, despite apparently trying to be even-handed, can’t give any of the Catholic characters (those who remain Catholic, at least) a single moment of coming off credible in a theological debate. It also makes Luther look very pure-minded, keeping him so far from the rioting and violence that took place in his name that he has no real moral conflicts about it (in the film, at least, by the time he learns what’s happening, it’s impossible for him to intervene). It also glosses right over Luther’s decision that ministers ought to be allowed to marry, something that is not of complete disinterest to the man himself (although, as his romantic relationship is one of the least adroit aspects of the film, perhaps it’s as well this was not given greater emphasis).

Viewers who love costuming and production design will be in secular heaven, as the period look is fairly authentic and colorful, and Fraisse’s lighting gives everything a beautiful golden glow. Sound is good and the score by Richard Harvey attractively incorporates medieval tunes and appropriate-sounding instruments in ways that will appeal to fans of this musical genre.

“Luther” is a bit full of itself and doesn’t have a trace of 2003 sensibility – stylistically, this movie feels as if it could have pretty much been made at any time in the last 50 years. However, it is undeniably educational and, even with its melodramatic flourishes, it’s ultimately fairly engaging on both the intellectual and emotional levels.

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