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DIRECTED BY: Sean Meredith
FEATURING: Voices of ,
PLOT: A faithful update of Dante’s “Inferno” to modern times, performed with stick puppets, as 35-year-old Dante is led on a tour of Hell to see the ironic punishments inflicted on various species of sinners.
COMMENTS: Written in the 1300s, Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia was a comedy in the classical sense: as opposed to tragedy, it had a happy ending (at least for the protagonist, if not for the author’s enemies who get written into eternal punishment). Sean Meredith’s puppet take on Dante is surprisingly faithful to the plot structure of the famous “Inferno” cantos, but he adheres to the modern sense of “comedy”: stuff that makes you laugh. Despite the movie’s literacy, some of the jokes can get pretty lowbrow: told Charon will ferry our travelers across the Styx, contemporary Dante remarks, “I love Styx! Ever hear their ‘Paradise Theater’ album?” Other jokes are more clever: Dante’s city of Dis is now a “planned community.” They even throw in a little “Schoolhouse Rock” style parody (the damned flatterers are housed at a Hellish version of the U.S. Capitol).
The updated time period means that Hell now appears much like Los Angeles (a joke in itself). Modernizing the setting allows the filmmakers to make two kinds of commentaries. On the one hand, they can speculate about new residents who might have taken up quarters in Old Nick’s slums since the original poem text-locked in 1320. Some of the newcomers are obvious: Hitler gets in (along with Ronald Reagan, both condemned for consulting astrologers). So does Condoleezaa Rice (although she’s not named), vacuumed up by Judge Minos for lying about WMDs. The other layer of critique occurs due to the culture clash between ancient medieval morals and post-Enlightenment ethics: Dante naturally wonders why his favorite schoolteacher is condemned to dance to house music for all eternity. And a Muslim cabdriver righteously complains about being condemned as a heretic—and, breaking the fourth wall, about being depicted as a stereotype in a puppet movie.
The production leans hard into the artificiality of its puppet-show presentation (which is a type of adaptation that might actually have been made around Dante’s time). In the very first scene, modern Dante rises from a drunken stupor; no attempt is made to hide the string that pulls the paper figure upright. Throughout, rods and wires and popsicle sticks can be seen pushing and pulling the figures across the crosshatched backgrounds of the world. Dante has an Adam’s apple made from a paper tab that moves independently to show fear. At one point, a puppet is quickly flipped from a calm side to an outraged face to express sudden rage. Then there are the graphically pornographic puppets populating the circle of lust, which must be seen to be believed (Dante certainly would not have approved). The team of puppeteers know all the tricks to this limited art form, but after a while you stop noticing the artifice and simply accept this two-dimensional cardboard landscape as a “real” world. Somehow, the producers attracted recognizable talent for small voice acting roles, including Martha Plimpton as a demonic pimp, Tony Hale as Ovid, and Olivia D’Abo as Beatrice.
The movie is not really that weird—although anyone not familiar with Dante’s original schema might find the concept befuddling—but by taking us on an amusing tour of a newly renovated Hell in a brisk 75 minutes, Dante’s Inferno earns a recommendation for English majors with a sense of humor, both those who love and those who hate The Divine Comedy. Released straight to DVD and never reprinted, Dante’s Inferno is a rare find. If you’re searching for it, beware of purchasing the more abundant Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic (2010) by accident.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was nominated for review by Leslie Rae, who called it “amazing and hilarious and totally ridiculous.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)