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Intolerance (D.W. Griffith) 1916


    Easily one of the most audacious films ever made, Intolerance, D.W. Griffith’s collection of epics, continues to inspire films that marvel at its expansive excess (Todd Haynes’ Poison and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream spring immediately to mind). Spanning four time periods, the film tells four disparate stories in parallel under the pretense that they all similarly show grave examples of the evils of man’s intolerance. The stories are all engaging, even if not equally so, and the film never flags during its ample running time. Still, this feels at times like a great experiment in which Griffith can test the capabilities of his montage aesthetics. He cuts across the four stories, linking them with the unifying image of a mother rocking a child’s cradle, and the simultaneous climax of the tales is decidedly impressive. The cross-cutting would be more impressive, however, if Griffith was able to find a more consistent rhythm. The ending montage achieves a unified tempo that should be more consistent throughout. As it stands, some of the stories are shown for a half-hour at a time. The Babylonian and modern tales are more thoroughly told during the length of the film than the passion play and the French tales are, and as such their inclusion in the ending seems almost distracting. One can’t help but feel that those two stories would stand better on their own (indeed, the Babylonian story was released as separate features after Intolerance failed at the box office).


    The film is as filled with heavy-handed Victorian morality as anything that Griffith made, but the director frequently finds moments to pornographically stare at a decapitation or a cheesecake shot in the midst of his moralizing. The extended Babylonian battle sequence is perhaps the most spectacular in the film, and Constance Talmadge’s performance as the rugged mountain girl in this segment is the film’s most memorable, but none of the acting in the film is bad. The costume design and the sets are incredibly detailed, and you find yourself wishing a director like von Sternberg was behind the camera so we could get a more detailed look at them. Griffith seems more interested in pointing out the veracity of their reconstruction during his intertitles. If Griffith’s ambition occasionally gets the better of him in this film, it also is the obvious result of his conviction that he was telling a story that needed to be told in a medium that hadn’t yet been pushed this far (and rarely has been since). So many early silent films are exciting because they were made while the rules about what the movies should be were still being written, and Intolerance seems to be utterly boundless in its best moments. That it sometimes feels embarrassing in its simplicity is forgivable considering its achievements.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman