A truly astonishing restoration, this
pioneering literary adaptation from 1911, long thought lost, was at last pieced
together and exhibited in 2004. L’INFERNO is a fairly literal, if extremely
broad, adaptation of Dante’s INFERNO with incredibly elaborate (for the time,
anyway) special effects. While quite primitive by today’s standards, this
silent classic is still required viewing, if for no other reason than to
experience the real origins of modern horror cinema.
L’INFERNO took over three years to make and was reportedly the first ever
Italian feature film, and furthermore boasted the highest budget of its time.
It reportedly took in over $20 million in the US alone, an astounding amount in
the early days of cinema; its international success wasn’t surprising,
considering the widespread fascination Dante’s Fourteenth Century masterpiece
THE DIVINE COMEDY, or at least the INFERNO portion (the others, the PURGATORIO
and PARADISO, are—let’s face it—far less interesting), continues to exert.
Notable modern permutations include Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s witty 1976
novel INFERNO and the postmodern spectacle A TV DANTE: THE INFERNO, co-directed
by Peter Greenaway in 1992.
Incidentally, the 1911 film under discussion here is NOT the best known
silent film version of Dante’s INFERNO. That honor goes to a 1912 remake by one
of the earlier film’s three directors Giuseppe de Liguoro. The later film was
apparently more elaborate and extensive clips from it were included in two
subsequent films entitled DANTE’S INFERNO from 1924 and ’35, respectively, as
well as Ken Russell’s ALTERED STATES. It is also credited in The Guinness Book
of World Records as the first ever film to feature full frontal male nudity and,
unlike the earlier version, appears to still be lost.
The poet Dante, on a stroll one day, imagines himself lost in a dark and
gloomy wood confronted by the “Hill of Salvation” which he endeavors to ascend,
but is blocked by three avaricious animals representing different foibles of
mankind. Luckily, the angel Beatrice (a young woman whose real-life death
inspired Dante to pen his DIVINE COMEDY) descends from Paradise into Limbo and
convinces the poet Virgil to guide Dante through the underworld.
After passing through a rocky portal adorned with the
words “Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here”, the poets approach the river
Acheron, where the boatman Charon ferries the souls of the dead, those who in
the “Great Rebellion” were “neither for God nor against Him, only themselves.”
From there they confront the chubby Judge Minos, who
sits atop a rock and assigns punishment to each guilty soul. Around them swirl
the carnal sinners, blown through the air by infernal gusts of wind (and whose
ranks include Cleopatra and Helen of Troy). Next the poets enter the Circle of
Gluttons, who lie on the ground tortured by eternal rain, guarded by Cerebus the
three-headed monster. Virgil appeases Cerebus by throwing it a handful of earth
and they continue on into the domain of the giant Pluto, who guards the misers
and spendthrifts, who are condemned to roll great bags of gold around and
Next Dante and Virgil head for the City of Dis, the
inner circle of the Inferno. The boatman Phleguyas ferries them across a river
filled with tormented souls, but their entrance to the city of Dis is barred by
a horde of evil spirits; three angels appear, however, to banish the spirits and
grant the poets entrance. They subsequently pass through the swamp of the Styx,
where souls overcome by anger are forever affixed, and the pits of fire where
heretics are entombed. Dante and Virgil next approach the blasphemers, who
suffer an eternal rain of fire (actually a few scattered fireballs).
Geryon, a creature with a man’s head and dragon’s body,
carries the protagonists to the next circle of Hell. There they enter a forest
of gnarled trees that are actually the souls of people who committed suicide.
In a succeeding valley wastrels are chased around and lashed by demons, followed
by the river of filth, where flatterers and dissolutes are immersed, attempting
in vain to wash themselves clean. Then there are the summonists, who’ve sold
the Church’s goods for profit, buried in the ground head downward and tortured
by fire on the souls of their feet.
In the next circle, those who misappropriated the
monies or properties of others are immersed in a river of boiling pitch, guarded
by a bevy of vindictive demons who Virgil manages to placate. From there Virgil
and Dante fly into the next circle, where they confront the hypocrites,
condemned to walk around in heavy lead cloaks. In another valley are dozens of
serpents which continually bite robbers—in the same location grafters and
faithless custodians of public funds are transformed into ugly, reptilian
critters. Fraudulent councilors and evil advisors are wrapped in flaming
garments and the sowers of discord are continually maimed by demons. Forgers,
falsifiers and counterfeiters are changed into lepers, left writhing on the
Virgil gets the giant Antaeus, chained to a rock for his crimes, to lift up
him and Dante and place them in final circle of hell, where traitors are
immersed in a lake of ice. At the end of this circle is Lucifer himself, a
gigantic winged dude gnawing on the bodies of Brutus and Cassius. The poets
climb down the sides of Lucifer’s vast body and manage to exit Hell for good.
Cinematically you won’t find much to savor here, as the film was made long
before the innovations of D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION. It’s composed
entirely of wide shots that more often than not feature the two protagonists
wandering around the edges of the frame while dozens of nearly naked folks
(loincloths cover the genital areas) writhe in the center. Lengthy title cards
fill us in on the action and dialogue before they happen.
Where the film distinguishes itself is in its rich and
imaginative visual design, patterned after Gustave Dore’s illustrations for
Dante’s work and shot on location in and around mountainsides, rivers and
caves. The special effects certainly don’t measure up to those of today but
retain their power to startle and intrigue; indeed, some of the optical work is
quite ingenious in its use of forced perspective and superimposition.
Particularly memorable effects include the sight of a guy holding his own
severed head aloft (which chatters as if it were still affixed to his body) and
the final shot of the devil joyously gnoshing on a flailing human body.
Another aspect of this restoration we’ll have to consider is the newly
recorded score by Tangerine Dream, which has thus far proven quite
controversial. TD here utilize uncharacteristically subtle tones in their
score, which comes complete with English language vocals. The vocals are
definitely an annoyance, but otherwise I found the score surprisingly effective;
its dark, restrained ambiance actually makes for a haunting contrast to the
hysteria of the visuals.
Eye Four Films Ltd. /Snapper Music
Directors: Francesco Bertolini,
Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguorno
Based on THE DIVINE COMEDY by Dante
Cast: Salvatore Anzelmo
Papa, Arturo Pirovano, Giuseppe De Liguoro, Atilio Motta, Augusto Milla, Emilise