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Friday, August 2, 2013

INTOLERANCE: Classic Film Review

Babylon in Intolerance
1916, 167 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic (and I mean EPIC) drama is a complete mess narratively, but is so visually stunning and innovative that it is easy to forgive the narrative shortcomings.  While certainly not one of the greatest films I've ever seen, it is still a technical marvel that has a knockout of a second half.

Intolerance was made after Griffith's controversial 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation and follows four stories of intolerance throughout the ages: one in the modern day of 1916, one in ancient Babylon, one centered around Christ in ancient Israel, and one in 1572 Paris before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.  Each storyline is intercut with the others to show the parallels between them.  If you were wondering where a film like Cloud Atlas came from, look no further.

As mentioned, Intolerance is a mess narratively.  Griffith gave a lot of screen time to the Babylon and modern day sections, but just seemed to throw the other two in as an afterthought.  Thus, the balance of the film is thrown off.  The film is unbelievably sentimental and the characters are all one-dimensional.  The first half is extremely slow and sometimes eye-rollingly bad dramatically.  Visually, though, it always is near-perfect.  Drama is not Griffith's strong point.  However, before the intermission, the Battle of Babylon sequence occurs and it is awe-inspiring.  It is technically brilliant, exciting, and quite simply huge.  The technical aspects of film were Griffith's strength.  As the film goes into the second half, all of the stories start to mesh and parallel each other more obviously and it is a race to the finish.  The pace picks up, as does the action.  The film becomes bigger, more ridiculously ambitious, and more dramatic.  The Babylon part of the film is obviously the one Griffith cared most about probably because he could have the most fun with it.  It is absolutely massive.  When the second act of the film arrives, we see a shot of the titanic Babylon set from high up before the camera descends into the middle of the action in one sweeping motion.  The cinematography in this sequence and a train sequence near the end is astounding considering that this film was made in 1916.  During the train sequence, I forgot that I was watching a movie that was nearly 100 years old.  It felt modern and is still exciting; this is why this film is still revered today - it still has the power to awe and thrill.  Seeing this on the big screen was a film lover's dream.

The restoration and the Carl Davis score for the film make it look and feel new.  The picture is gorgeous.  Little film grain remains and the tinted colors are bright and beautiful.  The score is powerfully dramatic to fit the film.

Overall, Intolerance is a technical marvel that has influenced countless movies.  It is very uneven narratively, but is a wonder to watch.  It is an immersive, exciting spectacle made by a visionary man who wanted to push the limits of cinema in his day and ended up changing it forever.  Run out and see this movie at Film Forum in New York City, which is showing it through this week.


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