Before the Reformation, the meaning of life came highly structured from the hierarchy of the Church. One didn't ask questions. One didn't need to.
Many believers, perhaps most, experienced Truth through relics, images, and rituals—not as oppression but as comfort. To be sure, one did not meet God face to face. But one did not want to! For the late-medieval rank and file, assurance of salvation came not from bold access to the throne of God, but from the myriad mediating practices of penance and devotion.
In Luther, one scene in particular brings home this historical reality. Glowing with joy, a young mother who has purchased an indulgence (a remission of temporal punishment) for her crippled daughter holds it out to a gaunt Martin Luther: "Look what I bought for Greta!" She has been gulled by the rhetoric of the charlatan indulgence-seller, Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina).
Luther (Joseph Fiennes) takes the paper and reads it. His anger at the corrupt establishment rises and boils over. He forgets the gentleness he has displayed toward her. "This is worthless," he says, crumpling it in his fist. "You must rely on God's love." Crestfallen, she turns and walks disconsolately away.
At several key moments in the movie, Luther faces the charge that he is tearing apart the church. He grapples repeatedly with the possibility that he is destroying, rather than building, God's kingdom. To their credit, though, the filmmakers resist the temptation of portraying a Lone Ranger Reformer against a thoroughly evil Church. There are enough sympathetic figures in the Catholic establishment (Matthieu Carriere's Cardinal Cajetan chief among them) to create some sense of historical nuance.
Moreover, we get to see some warts of the Reformation. Andreas Karlstadt (Jochen Horst) takes Luther's teachings to their extreme, announcing that the day of the great leveling has arrived. Soon we see townspeople dragging the monks who have cared for them out of their church and pummeling them. Rocks crash through stained-glass windows. A crucifix is knocked to the floor. (The scene involves a bit of historical sleight-of-hand: the real Karlstadt, advocating nonviolence, had refused to join the militant radical reformer Thomas Müntzer.)
Luther is still a medieval man; this anarchic attack on authority is too much for him. He appeals to the princes, demanding the peasant revolt be put down. Soon the blood of the peasants runs on the floor of the ruined church.
Surveying the carnage, Luther agonizes: "I have torn the world apart." He begins to slide into depression. He must force himself out of bed each morning. Until, that is—in a moment befitting Hollywood—he meets the escaped nun Katerina (Claire Cox). Sunny but steel-willed, Katerina leads Luther from the dark tunnel and into the summer of the loving marriage he has long denied himself.
Of course, this is a Lutheran movie, not a Catholic one—it is backed by Thrivent, the major Lutheran financial services organization. The answer to the question of whether Luther is destroying the church he loves or bringing it back to its most basic sources of authority is clear. The abuses flowing from the "sewer" of Rome are portrayed starkly enough.