Gone with the Pope Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
The Job: Kidnap the Holiest man in the world. The Ransom: A Dollar from every Catholic in the world. …You’re either in, or you’re in the way! (From Grindhouse’s original synopsis)
Few things excite a hardened cult film lover more than a lost film. Not just a movie that fell through the cracks to be forgotten by time, but a movie that went missing before it could be seen by an audience or was never quite completed. Some of these fall into legend, while others are found and finished by other filmmakers, usually after the death of the instigating director. Famous/notorious examples include Spanish schlock-peddler Jesus Franco re-editing and finishing Orson Welles’ Don Quixote (edit: in the years since I first wrote this, Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind was also completed and released), Robert Clouse building Game of Death out of 30 minutes worth of Bruce Lee-directed fight scenes, and Lamberto Bava shooting new footage for his father Mario’s Rabid Dogs.
Lounge singer turned independent filmmaker Duke Mitchell’s Massacre Mafia Style (1974) was underseen, but had a minor cult following on VHS before it was finally ‘resurrected’ by Grindhouse Releasing, a process that culminated in a theatrical run and a Blu-ray/DVD release. But the even bigger story behind Grindhouse’s acquisition was that, in the process of searching for usable material, studio co-owners Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski, along with Blue Underground founder Bill Lustig, stumbled upon the remnants of Mitchell’s second film, Kiss the Ring, which had been shot back in 1975. There were seventeen reels and, apparently, a very rough assembly cut. Murawski, an Academy Award-winning editor (he worked on just about every Sam Raimi movie since Darkman  and won the award for The Hurt Locker ), spent more than a decade reconstructing a ‘final cut.’ Murawski’s cut, re-titled Gone with the Pope, was completed in 2009, more than three decades after Mitchell ran out of funding (he died in 1981).
When I watched Massacre Mafia Style for the first time last month (edit, as in 2015), I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. It had its eccentricities and looked a bit rough around the edges, but it was moderately less wacky than its trailer and Video Nasty reputation implied. Gone with the Pope is the movie I wanted Massacre Mafia Style to be. It’s wacky, weird, and, despite all of its familiar parts, it is unlike anything else you’re ever likely to see. Every time I thought I had a handle on what I was watching, the whole paradigm shifted under my feet. The patchwork design is clearly fueled by the fact that Murawaski and his collaborators were working with more footage than Mitchell ever planned on using. They also didn’t have a script that they could use as a blueprint – all they had was the rough-cut, which had been assembled with help from original editors Bob Leighton and Robert Florio. It’s educated guesswork based on what was possibly an already insane agenda on Mitchell’s part.
The contemporary techniques, including overlapping events and montage sequencing (the superimposed images are absolutely a Duke Mitchell special, though, and not concocted in any way for this version), don’t feel contrived or ham-fistedly modern. Again, even if the flow and unpredictable narrative weren’t part of Mitchell’s Kiss the Ring plan, they fit the movie Murawaski was able to construct from the three hours of raw footage. Its nonsequential plotting and generally impressionistic nature are vital parts of its charm. Paul’s plan to kidnap the Pope isn’t even established until almost halfway through the film and, even then, the purpose of the previous 45 minutes is vague at best. This centerpiece section (and inspiration for both of the movie’s titles) is, ultimately, just the longest of a collection of episodic moments, alongside a prank sex scene where Paul surprises his friend in bed with a nude, morbidly obese woman.
The amateur actors can be stiff and Mitchell’s dialogue is riddled with the kinds of clichés that only work when spoken by actors that understand the value of speech patterns and melodrama. But the cast’s naturalistic performances work overall and Mitchell himself is actually pretty good and very heartfelt. Despite its chaotic plotting and gleefully offensive nature, Gone with the Pope has a melancholy heart. Paul is a subtly tragic character whose plans are desperate and actions tainted by sorrow. It sometimes feels like Murawaski and company are trying too hard to make a comedy of something that can’t be easily framed by any genre specifications. There are definitely laughs, both intentional and (seemingly) unintentional, but the general tone is somber, even at its most outrageous.
Most telling is that, despite all of his blasphemy and harsh criticism of Catholicism, Mitchell’s ultimate message speaks to the value of religion. The political incorrectness is less pronounced this time, though not at the risk of entertainment value. Mitchell’s rampant racism is tempered a bit by an odd tenderness he expresses during a slur-laden interaction with a black prostitute, as well as a speech he makes to the pope, criticizing the church’s lack of attention to poor minority communities (“How many black faces do you see at your masses”). He’s not atoning for sins, but definitely changing the statements made in Massacre Mafia Style.
Mitchell apparently learned quite a bit while making his makeshift debut. He was working from an even smaller budget this second time around, yet created a more expressive and cinematic experience. The director was reportedly inspired by The Godfather (1972) when he made both of his movies, but very little of Francis Ford Coppola’s style found its way into Massacre Mafia Style, which ended up having more stylistically in common with Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes’ films. Here, director of photography Peter Santoro does Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis proud with super-dark, evocative images and authentically artistic low-angle shots.
The fact that Gone with the Pope was rescued and completed is amazing. The fact that Grindhouse was able to make the reels Stallone and Murawski found in a garage look comparable to many major studio catalogue release is practically a miracle. This 1080p, 1.78:1 (the specs list 1.85:1), 2K restoration is limited a bit by its original condition, the number of different 35mm stocks used, and the fact that Mitchell and Santoro shot some soft focus, high-shine daylight images, but is otherwise quite sharp. The lighter sequences feature complex textures/patterns and those wonderfully dynamic dark interiors are crisp and nicely separated. Grain levels are pretty consistent with a few understandable escalations during some of the darkest sequences. Colors are also consistent as well as vibrant, regardless of lighting schemes. Problem shots are the exception, instead of the rule. Towards the beginning of the movie, there are images of Paul in prison that were likely irreparably damaged (during the extras, Santoro claims he made some errors while shooting, so that may have been a problem, too) and appear particularly blurry, as well as rife with sharpening artifacts (like chunky haloes). Other artifacts include slight frame shifting, occasional flare-out (due to the fact that most of the movie was shot using 35mm footage from the end of junked reels), and general dust and scratches.
According to imdb.com specs, Gone with the Pope was mixed in six-track stereo, which seems unlikely, but I guess not impossible. This Blu-ray features three audio options – mono, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and stereo 2.0 Dolby Digital. They were reportedly mixed by Emmy award-winning sound mixer/editor/designer Marti Humphrey (Drag Me To Hell , Oculus ). The mono and 5.1 mixes are comparable in terms of basic effects design, volume levels, and layering. The multi-channel work on the 5.1 track is well-placed and directional movement is ‘accurate,’ but the separation does make the added effects – which were necessary given the general lack of original foley – sound more ‘artificial.’ Some scenes are in better shape than others. Once again, those early prison scenes seem to have been extensively damaged and the on-set dialogue is muffled to the point that it’s difficult to understand. Some of the scenes on the boat are similarly muddied. Humphrey does his best with what he has, filling gaps with an eclectic musical soundtrack that included old standards performed by Mitchell, Dominico Salvatora Miceli’s score, Chris Virzi and Christopher Young’s added score, and songs from Duke’s son Jeffrey Mitchell’s rock band. The music sounds great on both tracks, but is better when spread into the stereo channels for the 5.1 mix.
Gone with the Pope: The Players (1:07:00, HD) – Retrospective interviews with actors Jim LoBianco and John Murgia, cinematographer Peter Santoro, original editors Bob Leighton and Robert Florio, and exploitation producer/director/friend of Mitchell Matt Cimber. It’s full of fun and intimate behind-the-scenes anecdotes and gives a basic impression of the strange production processes behind both of Mitchell’s movies. It also includes footage from one of Cimber’s movies that featured Mitchell.
Shooting Gone with the Pope (23:20, HD) – Further discussion with Santoro and the editors on the technical processes of filming the movie.
Restoring Gone with the Pope (3:10, HD) – Even more with Santoro on the arduous process of restoring the film, including comparison demos.
Seven deleted/extended scenes (17:20, SD)
Outtakes (1240, SD)
Inserts (6:10, HD) – Santoro tells a story about Mitchell bringing him along to shoot porno ‘insert’ shots, followed by the sequence itself (which was not used in the final movie)
Frankie Carr & The Nov-Elites Live in Vegas (8:20, SD) – Additional footage of the band that appears in the Vegas scenes
Footage from the 2010 Hollywood World Premiere (20:50, HD)
Duke Mitchell filmography
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The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.