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A silent masterpiece still making a big noise ★★★★

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

3:36 PM EDT, October 3, 2013

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Back this month in a meticulous digital restoration, on a screen large enough to handle its variously color-tinted insanities, the silent landmark "Intolerance" is everything a movie can be. It's grand, grandiose, ambitious to the point of absurdity, sluggish here, propulsive there, and then finally so propulsive resistance is futile.

The project was deeply personal to its maker, D.W. Griffith, who made his so-called "Sun Play of the Ages," this "drama of comparisons," a year after the popular success of the Civil War-era melodrama "The Birth of a Nation." That film's eternally controversial pro-Ku Klux Klan story line, coupled with its vicious, sub-human stereotyping of African-Americans, cut this country up like a switchblade victim, even as the lines formed around the block. Griffith, stung by the criticism the film provoked (alongside an avalanche of praise), responded with "Intolerance."

In it, four story lines — the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.; the last days of Jesus Christ; the 16th century Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants; and the modern-day (i.e., 1916) tale of social reformers gone berserk — are set into separate narrative motion and designed, according to one intertitle card, to "run parallel in their hopes and complexities."

That they do. Some of common critical wisdom regarding "Intolerance" is correct. The size and visual impact of the Babylon sequences remains jaw-dropping, and when Griffith's camera booms down in a traveling panoramic shot, with composer Carl Davis' fresh and rousing musical score behind it, it's enough to make you cry.

The modern-day story line works like gangbusters; the Reformation Europe chunk of the movie, by contrast, is just that — a big, pretty chunk of thematic cement, dragging the rest of the picture down, or trying.

And yet this paradoxically feverish meditation on the theme of repression has all sorts of greatness. When Griffith gives us the siege of Babylon at night; when his peculiar mixture of Victorian prudery and melodramatic savagery activates the tale of the "unfit" mother stripped of her newborn babe; when the increasingly rapid intercutting between the stories comes to its climax, and that endlessly rocking cradle threatens to rock itself to the moon: This is cinema, folks.

The Chicago Daily Tribune review, unsigned, got it right. "It is impossible to adequately describe this picture," the writer said, breathlessly. Griffith gives "the world today something that places the film spectacle upon a higher plane."

The public rejected it; the costs were sky-high; the folly, as many saw the project, changed the shape and direction of Griffith's career forever. "Intolerance" will forever stand as one of the art form's crucial dares. There, its images say, collectively. I dare you to compare this drama of comparisons to anything before or since. The Film Center will present Griffith's dare five times in October.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Intolerance" - 4 stars

No MPAA rating (violence, partial nudity, rampant hypocrisy)

Running time: 2:47, plus a 10-minute intermission

Plays: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18, 3:15 p.m. Oct. 26, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 28.