Guest post by Shannon Gayk.
October 31st will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five theses on the door at Wittenberg, an act of dissent and a prod to debate that is often taken as inaugurating the Protestant Reformation. This fall’s film series Heretics, Revolutionaries, and Reformers commemorates that event by offering a series of classic films that reflect on the principled resistance of pre-modern reformers and dissidents in the centuries before and after the Protestant Reformation: Becket (1964) on September 17; A Man for All Seasons (1966) on October 21; Luther (2003) on October 30; and a newly-restored silent film, La passion de Jean d’Arc (1928) with live guitar accompaniment on December 3.
Each of the films in the series engages the difficulties and dangers of speaking out against powerful political or religious institutions by telling the story of a social, religious, and political dissident or revolutionary: Thomas à Becket, Sir Thomas More, Martin Luther, and Joan of Arc. Torn between obligations to their friends, their nations, and their religion, each of these figures risked their lives for their beliefs, taking principled stands against powerful forces and speaking truth to power. Thus, while each of these films focuses on a single figure, taken together, these films offer a compelling picture of the complex relationships between individual dissidents and the larger religious and social institutions that saw them as dangerous outsiders. Many of these films veer into the realms of hagiography and martyrology, canonizing the religious dissident as a saint, martyr, or a prophet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these films do not end well for their protagonists. Then as now, dissent can be risky business.
Even so, in telling the stories of these reformers, dissidents, and revolutionaries, these four films will continue to raise questions about what it might be at stake (in some cases quite literally) in speaking one’s conscience, critiquing authorities, articulating difference or calling for reform, and/or challenging the status quo not only in the pre-modern past but also, perhaps, in our own moment.
The Heretics, Revolutionaries, and Reformers series is sponsored by The Medieval Studies Institute, The Renaissance Studies Program, the departments of Religious Studies and English, the College Arts and Humanities Institute, and IU Cinema. This partnership is supported through IU Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Shannon Gayk is Director of the Medieval Studies Institute and Associate Professor of English at Indiana University. Her research focuses in part on reform in the centuries before the Protestant reformation and includes her 2010 book, Image, Text, and Religious Reform in Fifteenth-Century England.