Recommended Viewing Situation:
On a quiet, contemplative night in with a bottle of Italian red.
Running Time: 71 mins.
Format: 35mm Film.
Director: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguoro.
Writer: Dante Alighieri (original poem).
Cinematographer: Emilio Roncarolo.
Much like the literary landmark that is Dante’s Divine Comedy, this excellent adaptation of his Inferno is many things; an important milestone in film history, a paragraph in the first chapter of Italian cinema, the first real blockbuster (a title it earns from the vast financial success it enjoyed, raking in over $2million in America alone), and a labour of love. As the first Italian feature-length production, the film represents a turning point in the medium of cinema. Originally released in 1911, after three years of filming, the film today exists in several different versions, including a lovingly restored one created using archived copies of the original, including an (unfortunately) incomplete first-generation copy owned by the BFI. Several different soundtracks exist for the film, but my personal favourite is the 2004 release, with a hauntingly ethereal soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, which features the occasional lyric verse thrown in to help elucidate the plot and add some more of the poem into the film.
The film itself is a love-letter to Italy’s most beloved poet, Dante Alighieri. It remains a spectacle even today, being the most enthralling silent film I’ve ever seen. Although some of the more pedantic viewers may criticise the visible wires in some of the shots, the special effects (all practical and in-camera, of course) are well-crafted and add to the atmosphere of the film, making it feel as though the viewer has joined Dante and Virgil on their descent into the underworld. The visual style of the film borrows heavily from Gustave Dorè’s engravings, clearly placing the film in a long history of art inspired by Dante’s magnum opus. It’s difficult to comment on the acting, as it’s so far removed from 21st century methods it’s almost a completely different art, but in general, all of the performers put on an excellent and physically demonstrative show.
It’s a cultural artefact that will appeal to many diverse groups; Dante scholars, and film historians amongst them, but it really should be on everyone’s watching list, if only so we can all see how far our favourite medium has come in the last century. It’s just a damn shame that the people behind this masterpiece never got around to making Purgatorio and Paradiso.