Flickhead
Film Review
By Ray Young

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L’Inferno

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Directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro.

Restored version produced by Tim Pearce.
With Salvatore Papa (Dante), Arturo Pirovano (Virgil), Augusto Milla (Lucifer).
71 minutes. Originally released in 1911.
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    Filmed over a three year period by three directors and a cast and crew of more than 150 people, L’Inferno is a forgotten curio and one of the first movie epics. Clocking in at a snappy 71-minutes, even its length was considered extravagant when it came out in 1911. Made in Italy, this painterly filmization of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” (Hell) portion of his Divine Comedy is steeped in pageantry, visual trickery, and a hefty dose of Catholic guilt.
    The directors—Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro—effectively bypass the poetry of the source material to focus their energies on the state of eternal retribution which Dante enthusiastically mapped out. (The ambitious filmmakers mounted an elaborate production of Homer’s Odyssey that same year.) The afterlife of the unbaptized, greedy, envious, gluttonous, prideful, and lustful is exhibited to the author/narrator as he’s led deeper and deeper toward the Earth’s core, eventually coming face to face with Lucifer in the pit of Hell.
    As the characters lack personality and the situations are one-dimensional, it’s plain to see that the directors were chiefly concerned with fantastic sets and effects wizardry. And given the era, they owed a debt to Georges Méliès. The experiments in multiple exposures and theatrical gimmicks that were pioneered by the French magician (in 1902’s A Trip to the Moon and countless novelty films) were taken to new heights in L’Inferno by cinematographer and effects artist Emilio Roncarolo. Obviously antiquated by today’s standards, they’re still a joy to watch, such as the embryonic stop-motion animation of characters transforming into lizards, visions of the damned floating helplessly in space, and the jarring encounter with poet Bertrand de Born, stumbling about while holding his severed, screaming head.

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Above: The poet Bertrand de Born, Dante’s condemned “sower of schism.”
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    Restored with the help of the British Film Institute and the Library of Congress, it’s apparent that the film was not properly preserved over the decades. Yet the remaining cosmetic blemishes—the aftereffects of basic age and wear, and the contrasting tones of the different prints used for the restoration—unintentionally add a tinge of mystery to the production. You often feel as if you’re watching something left behind a century ago by an ancient, extinct and half mad religious order.

    On DVD from London’s Eye 4 Films, the soundtrack is a contemporary piece written and performed by the synthesizer ensemble, Tangerine Dream. It was composed not with the film in mind, however, but for an entirely different project, a trilogy of suites based on The Divine Comedy. Although wildly incongruous in two brief spots (English-language vocals that had us reaching for the mute button), the brooding electronic music is generally complimentary and atmospheric.
    If the translation to the screen may be simple and naïve, L’Inferno wears its heart on the sweep and grandeur of Dante. A thematic precursor to the childlike Bible thumping of DeMille, the film was popular in its day and may have motivated him—as well as Fritz Lang, who adored these types of adventure stories that combined spiritual leanings with pulp fiction sensibility. (More than once, I’Inferno had us thinking of the sway it may have held on Der Müde Tod and the Nibelungen films.) Plus, a few of Roncarolo’s photographic effects and primitive excursions into deep focus may have inspired Bitzer, Griffith and von Stroheim.

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Above: The meeting with Pluto, an early attempt at deep focus photography
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