Gone With the Pope is a ’70s-era low-budget exploitation flick about a crew of bumbling Italian gangsters who come up with an ingenious plot to kidnap the pontiff, demanding a ransom of 50 cents from every Catholic around the globe. Directed by its star, Duke Mitchell, a nightclub singer and sometime Jimmy Durante impersonator who was known as “Mr. Palm Springs” for all the gigs he booked there in the ’70s, Pope plays like an extremely stylish home movie meant to amuse Mitchell’s crew after-hours. It’s gloriously, hilariously offensive, including all manner of racist and sexist jokes and one sequence of WTF? grotesquerie worthy of John Waters, in which Mitchell’s character kidnaps an obese woman as a “surprise” for his sleeping friend (what then ensues is probably technically gang rape, but the Benny Hill–style musical accompaniment, and the actors’ uncontrollable giggling, soften the threat).
It’s not all fun and games: Pope climaxes with a speech delivered by Mitchell, positing the film’s central scheme as a deeply felt gambit to punish the Church for failing to aggressively intervene in the Holocaust. It’s affecting and surprisingly convincing, and it beats Inglourious Basterds‘ revisionist history by three and a half decades.
Mitchell shot Pope in 1976, but was too broke to finish it. After his death in 1981, Bob Murawski (the Oscar-winning editor of The Hurt Locker and the co-founder of Grindhouse Releasing) sought out the raw footage, which he then reconstructed over the course of 15 years, in between paying gigs. The result is an incredible hybrid, with Mitchell’s decidedly dated sensibility delivered in a modern, masterfully quick-cut package. Pope‘s expression of unbridled id and cultural insensitivity isn’t politically correct, but as an unadulterated personal vision, it’s fascinating. The opposite of a Hollywood player, Mitchell could only make Gone With the Pope if he paid his own way—which afforded him the opportunity to make his own rules.