| L'Inferno





Dante’s Inferno

Giuseppe de Liguoro

Italy, 1911


Review by Adam Balz

Posted on 27 February 2006

Source Snapper UK DVD

External links

Snapper UK DVD website

Filmmaking was still in its infancy by the early 1900s. Characterized by vapid, faraway shots and incredibly underdeveloped narratives, cinema was still considered a transitory indulgence in some corners; reservations as to whether or not film would someday become culturally significant were widespread, prompting essayist W. Stephen Bush to write the following for Moving Picture World in 1911:

Is it possible that presently the moving picture, the whilom despised handmaiden of the clown and the cowboy, will place within the reach of millions all the treasure, that now, but for a handful of scholars, lies untouched in the libraries of the world? Is it true, that this heaven-sent invention will reveal to the masses of the people all the beauty, all the grandeur, all the sublime pictures and the no less sublime gospel of Dante?

He is speaking rather optimistically of Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno. Barely a footnote in today’s history of silent cinema, the film’s premier in Naples, Italy caused a sensation.

The first cinematic adaptation of Dante’s famed epic poem and first full-length Italian film, L’Inferno grossed over two million dollars in the United States alone. Drawn from the second cantiche of Dante’s Divine Comedy, L’Inferno explores the nine brutal, unforgiving circles of Hell. Dante, desiring to ascend the hill of salvation, must first endure the underworld; he is led by Virgil at the request of Beatrice, who’s presented as a radiant guide to Heaven. As they move from level to level, Dante discovers old friends, forgotten enemies, and unfamiliar sufferers, all victims of their own choices and lives, all who reach out to him in the throes of their everlasting punishment. There’s Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, her lover; condemned to a violent storm in the second circle, they relate their story of desire and consummation before sailing away. Peter of Vigna, a suicide, has been transformed into a black tree; when Dante cuts into the bark, it bleeds. Ugolino, a traitor, is found gnawing the skull of an archbishop in the ninth circle, where other traitors are encased in ice; it was the archbishop, Ugolino reveals, who starved his entire family in the Muda Tower.

Silent filmmaking provided little opportunity for originality on the part of the directors. Luckily de Liguoro, like many of his contemporaries and successors, knew how to adapt, transforming untrained actors into impish victimizers and agonized sinners. And just like his predecessor Georges Méliès, de Liguoro employed intricate editing techniques to create a surreal Hell. Perhaps the most startling scene involves an array of men without hands, legs, and, in one instance, a head; though the method of the effect is laughably evident, the beheaded man’s entrance ambushes the viewer almost immediately. An earlier scene in which Dante and Virgil gaze up at the storm of carnal sinners—perhaps the most remembered image from L’Inferno—is rough and uneven but mystifying. Based on the artwork of Gustav Dore, it left audiences enraptured almost a century ago:

It must also be stated, that the performance was repeatedly interrupted by applause and after the last scene was shown the applause was renewed from every part of the house. The scenes showing the unhappy fate of Francesca da Rimini, the circles of the City of Dis and the tragic sufferings of Ugolino and his sons were received with many exclamations, showing how profoundly the spectators had been moved.

W. Stephen Bush, “Dante’s Divina ‘Commedia’ In Moving Pictures”

When Snapper UK released L’Inferno in 2004, after compiling footage from both the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute, they added an introductory set of credits and new soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The idea of a modern soundtrack added to a silent film isn’t new—Philip Glass has composed entire scores for works by Jean Cocteau and Tod Browning. The only difference is that those additions were optional, whereas the music from Tangerine Dream is not. While much of the music is fittingly slow and melodic, blending indiscernibly into the background, it’s also at times anachronistic and lurid. Some online reviewers have suggested muting the DVD and substituting Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony. Having experimented with the latter, I am honestly confused as to why such a notable distributor would prefer New Age electronic harmonies to a classical interpretation. Had they done so, the beautiful spirit of L’Inferno and 1911 cinema would’ve been wonderfully evoked in every frame. Instead, it feels like commercialism sucker-punching a classic and beautiful piece of art.

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