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An Honorable Attempt at a Major Luther Biopic
In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it took until 2003 for a movie about Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Lutheran Reformation to reach the big screens. Made through the cooperation of the Lutheran and the Catholic Churches, Eric Till's LUTHER begins with Luther's days as a young, novice Catholic monk and ends just as the Lutheran Church itself is being formed. The movie is gorgeous to look at: the settings are beautiful (yet not improbably "clean"), the costumes even more so. Richard Harvey's musical score, as exquisitely crafted as a medieval tapestry, is surely one of the greatest movie scores composed within the last fifteen years. Its main themes stay in the memory long after the screen has gone dark.
It is easy to see why Joseph Fiennes, then fresh from Shakespeare IN LOVE, was cast as Martin Luther: thin and fair, even pale, he looks like nineteenth-century depictions of the young Luther by such artists as James Tissot, and not unlike the few from-life portraits of him. Fiennes' long face, with wide hazel eyes that can burn with fear, anger, or compassion, is always "readable," a perfect reflector of emotion. He is great at conveying the young monk's sincere piety, extreme anxiety about Hell, and barely controlled rage at the Church corruption he sees. His scenes with his sympathetic confessor (Bruno Ganz) and his scene before the intimidating Cardinal Cajetan (Mathieu Carriere) are particularly poignant and riveting, as are the scenes in which he visits Rome and sees its corruption firsthand.
Though Luther's disillusionment with the Catholic Church is clear in Fiennes' portrayal, the staunch Catholics in LUTHER are not cardboard villains. The kind-faced Alfred Molina, for example, makes indulgence seller Johan Tetzel oddly easy to relate to; you feel that his intentions are pure. Jonathan Firth (younger brother of Colin, just as Joseph Fiennes is the younger brother of Ralph) is an elegant Giralomo Aleander, the Vatican official who oversees Luther's trial. Sir Peter Ustinov (himself a Lutheran), who died just months after LUTHER premiered, is a joy to watch as Prince Frederick the Wise, Luther's supporter. Other delights include the German actor Torben Liebrecht, who looks uncannily like the youthful portraits of the Holy Roman Emperor he portrays; a "cameo appearance" by Louis Cranach, the Renaissance artist who painted Luther's portrait; and a period song with which Claire Cox, who makes the most of her brief scenes as Luther's strong-willed wife, serenades her fiancé.
The movie's one drawback is its less-than-perfect screenplay. The "riot" scenes that follow Luther's trial (the smashing of the icons, the Peasants' Revolt) are telescoped, melodramatic, and simply less interesting than are the "theological" scenes. Moreover, the screenplay seems to assume a certain level of prior audience familiarity with both medieval theology and Reformation history; it would be good, then, to know something about both before watching LUTHER. But theology is a hard topic to make entertaining for the masses, and in LUTHER the attempt was very nearly a complete success.
Suspenseful, Informative, Affecting
Though my own teen years were over with before the internet (and cell phones) became so widespread, I was deeply saddened by the Phoebe Prince "bully-cide" case of 2010; I then heard about CYBERBULLY (apparently inspired not by the Prince but by the equally tragic Megan Meier case) and decided to watch it. I found the film quite suspenseful, affecting and, above all, informative; it made me understand why the common advice to "cyberbullied" teens -- "Just turn off your computer!" -- is really not all that practical. CYBERBULLY is well written, filmed, and edited; the acting, though occasionally wooden, is a cut above what I would have expected from a "Lifetime" movie (and let's face it -- even such a classic "after-school special" as 1981's THE WAVE contains some wooden acting). The talented Emily Osment was both persuasive and likable as pretty-but-not-quite-popular Taylor Hillridge; she had me on her side. As for the much-mocked scene in which Taylor's not being able to open a bottle of pills foils her suicide attempt -- the scene actually is believable if you consider that the bottle cap may have stuck (which has happened to me more than once, and I'm in my thirties!); or that Taylor, evidently in a panicked state, was probably shaking hard; or that she might subconsciously have been TRYING to stall so that someone would save her in the nick of time. Regardless, CYBERBULLY is a well-done after-school special which taught me things I had not understood before about the online world of today's teenagers.