Monday, January 09, 2006

A Mighty Fortress

A Movie Review

In the run up to their 2003 theatrical releases, I chanced upon an online debate between Mormons and Lutherns on the respective merits of the coming films based upon important foundational tales of their respective spiritual traditions. Of course the Lutherns were convinced that Luther would be the better film, and the Mormons had high expectations for The Book of Mormon Movie. Having now seen both films I believe that I can settle this dispute in Luthers favor, and not just because The Book of Mormon Movie was so unspeakably awful, but because Luther was pretty good itself.

The movie begins with a young Martin Luther (Joseph Fiennes) forsaking the career in law that his father had laid out for him after God saved his life in a lightning storm. Luther joins an order of Augustinian Monks and even through his serve there is tormented by a heightened sense of personal sin. The sincere young monk wins over the affection of the head of his order, who feeling the Martin really needs to get out of the monastery dispatches him as a courier to Rome. Martin Luther is disgusted by what he sees in the holy city, an "open sewer" of a place were indulgences and sex are equally available and the Pope would rather be out fighting battles then tending to the spiritual needs of the people.

Upon his return from Rome Luther is even more sullen then before, the head of his order sends him to another city to attain further schooling and serve as a priest. While attending university Luther manages to win his professors over with his sincerity and logic, as well as his largely disillusioned congregation after he refuses to condemn a seriously ill young boy to hell for having committed suicide (he even gets the boys body buried in the church yard, something that just wasn't done for suicides at that time). Upon achieving a professorship for himself in that town, Martin Luther begins his campaign against indulgences and the veneration of relices, even winning over the local prince Frederick (Sir Peter Ustinov in one of his last roles) who had spent a life time amassing a large collection of such relics. Eventually Luthers teachings against the purchasing of indulgences gains such currency among the local German populace that it begins to fustrate Pope Leo X's financing scheme for St. Peters Church in Rome. An inquisitor is sent from the Vatican to try and dissuade Luther, but he too is won over (returning to tell the pope that he fears the young priest might be right), so a younger more ambitious representative is sent to conduct Luthers ex-communication hearings in Worms.

When Luther refuses his last chance to recant he is now in constant danger of his life and must go into hiding. The rest of the film recounts the violent consequences of Luthers words, divisions within his own movement, his work on the German translation of the Bible, and his marriage to the former nun Katharina von Bora (Claire Cox). Luther was not produced by a major studio, but rather financed by a number of Lutheran groups both business and eclectical. One might say that it is as a result of this that the less pleasant aspects of Luthers life and personality (such as his anti-Semitism and possible mental illness) are glossed over. Oddly enough I didn't find this sanatizing of Luther particularly distracting, perhaps this has something to do with my being raised a Mormon and growing up viewing white-washed depictions of my faiths past religious leaders in church produced historical bio-dramas. Despite his faults I really like Luther, he was a complicated man of deep spiritual convictions, an observant sense of humor, and a mountain of personal neuroses. While I admit my respect for the man and his story makes it easer for me to overlook the shortcomings of this relatively modestly budgeted film, the movie is still a fine depiction of a man worth knowing more about.


At 3:46 PM, Blogger Thuan The Large said...

Just thought I'd say hi. You've been a busy blogger. I just put up a couple new blogs and I thought I'd let you know. I'll catch you later.


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