DIRECTED BY: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro
FEATURING: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano, Emilise Beretta, Augusto Milla
PLOT: In the company of the poet Virgil, Dante Alighieri descends into Hell, where he discovers the variety of malefactors consigned to the netherworld by their misdeeds on Earth and the array of torments visited upon them.
COMMENTS: When the pioneers of the Italian film industry set about creating the country’s first feature-length motion picture (a format still in its infancy in 1911), they most decidedly did not screw around. No, they went straight for an adaptation of a foundational piece of literature, the one that did as much as anything to establish the language and the national identity. Without hesitation, they turned to Dante.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. “The Inferno,” the first part of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy, is a true horror story, a warning about the torture that awaits sinners in the afterlife. Part of what made Dante’s work so noteworthy was his willingness to name names. Various popes, Holy Roman Emperors, and other notable figures are depicted, along with their crimes and punishments. And his God is a harsh one: Julius Caesar’s assassins undergo perpetual torment, but Caesar himself was relegated to Limbo, an inferior paradise for those who made the terrible mistake of existing on Earth before Christ. It took a very pure life to stay out of Dante’s Hell, and he was only too happy to reveal the consequences of failure.
If all it took to get on our list was the “Indelible Image” category, L’Inferno would make the cut in a cakewalk. The limited practical and special effects of early cinema yield terrific results, conveying Hell as a real and horrible place in spectacular fashion. The harsh landscapes are difficult to navigate, and usually strewn with writhing bodies in some unholy mix of Hieronymous Bosch paintings and Spencer Tunick photographs. Multiple exposures conjure up rivers in the sky composed of thousands of the damned. Forced perspective brings the travelers into the realm of the mighty and rageful Pluto, and blackout techniques permit one doomed soul to carry his own head. The film’s climactic tableau combines these methods and more to present a three-mouthed Lucifer devouring some of history’s most notorious traitors; it resembles nothing so much as Goya’s grotesque classic “Saturn”. This appears simplistic to modern eyes but remains quite powerful in its effect. It’s as though the filmmakers carefully studied the magical techniques of Georges Méliès for the sole purpose of applying them to horror.
But alas, imagery alone is not enough to make a weird movie. The film of “The Inferno” suffers from the format that inspired it: it’s a travelogue. A travelogue through Hell, but a winding, episodic tour nonetheless. Dante visits a new circle of Hell, Virgil explains what the condemned did on Earth and what fate awaits them now, and we see that fate enacted. There’s not much more to it, so that this work of tremendous faith and contrition is reduced to a haunted house. Hell? It’s pretty bad, say the filmmakers. Rinse and repeat.
L’Inferno is a landmark film, and it creates dramatic and powerful screen pictures that most modern CGI-powered spectacles would be hard-pressed to match. Those pictures are often ugly and monstrous, and the rhythms are repetitive, which is probably why it hasn’t endured like more fantastical or pastoral works of the period. But it certainly deserves to be remembered. To abandon it to history would be a sin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Anyone with an interest in the history of cinema should make an effort to seek this film out. Rightly famous, it is quite bizarre, unique and — in a way — haunting.” – Richard Cross, 20/20 Movie Reviews
(This movie was nominated for review by “Pete.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)