This Fall, the Big Screen Spotlights Religion ; 'Luther,' Which Debuts Sept. 26, Is One of Several New Films That Focus on Religion or Question Institutional Authority

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As a way of putting scandalous institutional practices into historical context, "Luther" couldn't be more timely.

The movie, about the first successful challenge to Roman Catholicism, opens Sept. 26, the latest in a string of films that are either about religion or question religious authority.

Among them are the recently released horror-fantasy "The Order," about a renegade religious cult; "The Magdalene Sisters," about abuse in asylums run by Irish-Catholics; the three-hour epic, "Gospel of St. John," which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this month; and Mel Gibson's much-ballyhooed adaptation of Jesus's last 12 hours in "The Passion," shot in ancient Aramaic and Latin. Gibson hopes it will debut this spring.

Next month, "Sister Helen," a lively documentary about a salty 69- year-old Benedictine nun, who surmounted her own personal tragedies and ran a shelter for substance abusers in the south Bronx will be released in theaters and on HBO.

"Luther," directed by Eric Till and starring Joseph Fiennes, is a heavily scored action-adventure film about the German monk whose critique of Catholicism launched the Reformation in the early 16th century and led to the birth of Protestantism.

"In a recent Life Magazine poll about the most influential people in the last millennium, Luther came out ahead of Christopher Columbus, Galileo, and Leonardo da Vinci," says Dr. Martin Marty, coauthor of a six-volume study of militant fundamentalism and of the forthcoming Penguin biography of Luther.

The film depicts Luther's pilgrimage to Rome, the writing of his 95 theses, and his refusal to recant. It ends at a historic moment for Europe, when Germany's princes defy the alliance of church and state.

One such prince was Luther's mentor, Frederick the Wise, played by Sir Peter Ustinov with his customary wit and savvy.

"Luther started the Reformation, really, because he found Rome not Catholic enough," said Mr. Ustinov via phone from Switzerland. "He was very annoyed by the special favors you could ask the church. Like a box office, you could book your seats in heaven - if you paid enough. And translating the Bible into German opened the floodgates, because there was no longer a monopoly of Latin."

Luther translated the New Testament from Latin in just 11 weeks, enabling Germans to read the Bible for themselves.

"Luther wasn't the most orthodox kind of revolutionary," says the urbane Ustinov, chuckling. "Especially since he set up house with a defrocked nun.

"I see him as someone who was more logical and believed in a more human approach to the Deity, and disliked the pageantry, the theatricality of Rome," Ustinov continues. "Which coincided with a majority of taste in Germany."

From his vantage point as ambassador-at-large for UNICEF, Ustinov is spearheading a fight against intolerance and prejudice through his own foundation that examines the impact of prejudices on people and politics, a project that has earned him three university chairs in Vienna; Budapest, Hungary; and Durham, England.

This is also the topic of his upcoming book, "Achtung! …