L’Inferno is a film bizarrely forgotten by Anglophone film history. Before Cabiria and Quo Vadis?, which enjoyed worldwide popularity and influence, L’Inferno was one of the first Italian epics to gain international fame, yet it is nowadays comparatively little known.
I must admit that I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno. However, the film follows my understanding of the poem in being driven by description rather than a narrative per se. In this film, Virgil leading Dante through the nine circles of hell is simply a framing device to show a series of spectacular scenes, with striking visual effects, multiple sets, and a huge cast of extras: it’s the cinema of attractions in action. The imagery is suitably Bosch-like in its grotesquerie, and really quite amazing: the tinting and toning of the film highlights the fantastic, unreal scenes.
We open with Dante walking in the woods; when he is assaulted, Beatriz dispatches a suitably magisterial-looking Virgil to go and save him:
Although this pales in comparison the politicians and guarding-devils of Bolgia 5.
In Bolgia 7, a thief is transformed into a reptile:
And at the very centre of all the circles is Satan;
One of the scenes I found most beautiful was what I am calling the ‘carnival of souls’; after hearing the story of Paolo and Francesca, Dante faints and the following vista is shown:
The special effects aren’t perfect, but it is really a stunning image. And as my partner once said, Dante: history’s greatest Mary Sue. But when you create something so amazing, you’ve earned the right to write yourself into it.
In Italian Silent Cinema: A Reader, Raffaele De Berti writes of how the production and release of L’Inferno was tied to a social goal of education through entertainment, and promotion of Italian culture and art. He writes,
Milano Films’ noblemen felt entrusted with a pedagogic and paternalistic responsibility, which participated in the moral and cultural uplifting of the popular film shows. The expected financial profits of the film industry were almost a source of embarrassment: ultimately the purpose was to carry out a positive social action.
An extensive marketing campaign was carried out that, according to De Berti, was unprecedented at the time. In fact, a rival company rushed to market a shorter, cheap film with the same title to take advantage of L’Inferno’s publicity blitz. In the US, the producers used a distribution strategy based on exclusivity, marketing it as a cultural event rather than popular entertainment. Copies of The Divine Comedy were displayed in bookstores and apparently saw quite a sales bump. Reviews seem to have been favourable, and the film was certainly profitable.
L’Inferno was restored by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata in 2007. 14 copies of the film were located and consulted, with three main sources used for the reconstruction: an incomplete first-generation coloured nitrate print from the BFI (757m; English intertitles), and two black and white acetate dupe negs from Denmark (1052m; Danish intertitles) and Bulgaria (the most complete copy at 1234m, and with Italian intertitles). The intertitles were therefore reconstructed from the Bulgarian copy.
The English version features Powerpoint-style intertitles (as below) which follow the colour scheme of the original. This was done purposefully, to avoid confusion with the other version of L’Inferno that was circulated in the Anglosphere at the same time. Although they don’t expressly say so, I would guess that the restorers also wanted to make clear the reconstructed nature of the titles. I won’t say that I’m in love with them, but they look fine:
The film looks pretty great, on the whole, with beautiful tinting and toning. Being the only material existing from the 1911 release, the BFI copy was the guide for the colouring of the restoration; for shots missing from the BFI copy, the restorers made assumptions as to their colour based on careful study of the material. Most of the footage looks quite good for its age, although there is considerable damage to some parts, as in the following very rainy shot.
The DVD boasts an exceptional score by Edison Studio. Appropriately creepy and matched to each scene, it is an electro-acoustic soundscape work that includes sound effects of different types. The DVD also features a more traditional piano score by Marco Dalpano.
L’Inferno is an important film achievement of the early teens, and really deserves to be more well-known.
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Inferno. Dir. Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Milano Films, 1911. Available on DVD from the Cineteca Bologna as part of their Cento Anni Fa (One Hundred Years Ago) series. Film duration: 66 minutes. The DVD also features several extras: two shorts, Il diavolo zoppo | The Crippled Devil (Ambrosio 1909) and Come fu che l’ingordigia rovinò il Natale a Cretinetti | How Greediness Spoilt Foolshead’s Christmas (Itala-Film 1910); an excerpt from Maciste all’inferno | Maciste in Hell (Fert-Pittaluga 1926) – 8’28”; a slideshow showing comparisons of Gustav Doré’s illustrations of the Inferno and scenes in the film; and a slideshow of stills/posters/frames of Italian silent film adaptations of Dante.