Luther (2003)

Luther PosterIn sixteenth-century Europe, the Catholic church reins supreme and seemingly untouchable.  So when the promising but hotheaded young priest Martin Luther decides to challenge the establishment with his ninety-five theses, an enormous, chaotic conflict erupts, bringing great peril on him and anyone who dares follow his example.

Can Luther stand strong under the pressure that tempts him from all quarters?  And can one man really change the world for Christ?

The Good

From what I’ve heard of the true story of Luther, this film is reasonably accurate.  There are a few small incidences that have been changed for dramatic effect (including a reference to inertia when it had not yet been discovered) but overall, the historical aspects of the film are admirably done.  Luther’s speeches, including his famous “here I stand” address, are close to word-for-word replications.

Despite the fact that the film was made mostly by unbelievers, the theology is quite sound.  Particularly bold is the strong, personable sermon that Luther preaches to his congregation while still a priest, where he firmly declares to the devil, “Yes I know I deserve Hell, what of it?  For I have a friend who has paid the price…”  He consistently denies the power of anything or anyone except Jesus Christ as a way to Heaven and redemption.  He stresses the importance of faith over works for justification, in an age when the prevailing powers preached just the opposite.

The Bad

The overall tone of the film is fairly dark.  Luther struggles with doubts and the Devil frequently, and the superstition, violence and dirtiness of the era make for some disturbing sequences.  While I don’t consider this inaccurate or necessarily bad, it could be upsetting for children.  Though it is not gory or bloody, there is a raid in which many people are killed and Luther later comes upon piles of corpses in the church and the street.  A man is burned at the stake, though only the very beginning of the incident is shown.  Another man, trying to trick people into buying indulgences, burns his hand and shows it to the crowd, trying to frighten them with tales of the fires of Hell, and the singed flesh is very realistic.

There are a few instances of PG level languages scattered through the film.  When Luther visits Rome for the first time, he sees a woman with an extremely low neckline beckon another priest into her dwelling, and another equally immodest woman beckons to Luther, but he refuses.  The incident is fleeting, and I understand why they did it, but I would have preferred they find a more modest way of communicating the idea.

The only other problem I have with the film is the attitude of Luther’s wife, both before and after their marriage, which is not historically accurate.  She behaves more like a modern American woman than the chaste, respectful Catharine Luther.  She is rather forward before the marriage, and afterwards she is unwilling that her husband should continue his dangerous work for the Lord.  Thankfully, her part in the film is small.

The Art

The film is definitely more concerned with simply telling its story than with an inventive portrayal.  The editing, cinematography, acting, and music are not stellar, but serviceable.  They do not detract from the story, but are not particularly artistic.

The costumes and sets are extremely well done.  Attention to detail, such as the gradual growing out of Luther’s beard and hair after his priesthood ceases, or the particular garb of the pope and each cardinal, priest and monk, are well-thought out and consistent.  The grungy, grimy status of everything and everyone is historically accurate, yet not overdone to the point of unnecessary repulsion.

While the story is a difficult one to condense and communicate clearly in a two-hour film, the writers did a good job of the task.  The jumps in time can occasionally be mildly confusing, but for the most part it’s easy to tell when and where things are happening.  There are places where the story moves a bit quickly, but they manage to tell a great deal of the very broad story in a very little time.  The ending is a bit anti-climactic, but I don’t know what could have been done better while still preserving the integrity of the historical account.

This is an educational, enjoyable, and very inspiring film for the mature viewer.  All things considered, I would rate it 4/5.

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