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The Nine Circles Of Hell


Last week I blogged about the films and directors who inspired me in my early filmmaking pursuits.  The list of influential films included Dario Argento’s masterpiece, Suspiria (1977).

This blog post sparked some discussion I took part in concerning Italian cinema, within and outside of the horror genre.  This got my brain gears turnin’ about a horror/fantasy/adventure film from the earliest days of Italian filmmaking, L'inferno (1911).  I took my Eye4Films / Snapper DVD release of L'inferno off the shelf and enjoyed revisiting this spellbinding achievement from the silent film era.

L'inferno, the first Italian feature-length film, was directed by Giuseppe de Liguoro (who usually gets most of the credit), Francesco Bertolini, and Adolfo Padovan.  Not content to keep things simple for Italy’s first full-length feature, three directors and a cast and crew of over 150 people spent three years shooting this epic adaptation of Inferno, part one of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century poem, The Divine Comedy. Given the infancy of the film industry and the lack of resources and precedent in film production at that time, L'inferno may still rank as one of the most ambitious motion pictures ever made.

The poem, which took Alighieri thirteen years to write, is presented in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.  Collectively, these represent an emotionally arduous ascent to God, with Inferno being the first stretch of the journey – a terrifying climb down  through the nine circles of Hell to acknowledge and reject sin.  Inferno is therefore the most disturbing and lurid portion of The Divine Comedy.  The 1911 film adapts this segment, depicting sin, punishment, terror, and torture with gusto, while still being an imaginative and remarkably beautiful work of filmmaking.

The visuals in the first few scenes of the movie are rather simple.  One might wonder why three directors and three years of filming were required to make what looks like it might be shot in your back yard over a long weekend.  However, as master poet Virgil leads disoriented Dante down through the rings of Hell, the imagery of L'inferno becomes more otherworldly and transfixing.  The surreal visuals are saturated with special effects that obviously don’t hold up very well today, more than a hundred years later.  However, the film’s forced-perspective shots, puppets, crude animation, actors flying on cables, and composite shots were well-executed for 1911.  L'inferno’s cinematic trickery must have looked entirely nightmarish to audiences of that era.

What does hold up today is L'inferno’s stunning production design, based on the art of Paul Gustave Doré, a 19th century French illustrator, sculptor, and wood and steel engraver.  Doré’s robust career included many literary illustration commissions, The Divine Comedy and other works of Dante Alighieri included.  The filmmakers wisely chose to maintain tradition and present L'inferno in the imaginative, mesmerizing, and haunting visual style many readers of The Divine Comedy were already accustomed to.

I don’t know who he is, but apparently Raffaele Caravaglios wrote the first music score for L'inferno.  Unfortunately, the 2004 Eye4Films / Snapper DVD release of the movie instead comes with a modern Tangerine Dream score as your only audio option – and it is terrible.  I generally don’t mind Tangerine Dream music in film – for example, I’m among those who prefer the Tangerine Dream score over Jerry Goldsmith’s for Legend (1985).  However, for this release of L'inferno, Tangerine Dream really blew it.  When I watched the film again last night, I turned the DVD’s sound off and played Trent Reznor’s score for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) in its place.  Other than my dislike for the Tangerine Dream music (and the awkward, poorly-executed opening credits sequence) this DVD presents the film quite nicely.  A few moments here and there are missing, but this is probably the most complete L'inferno has ever been presented.  Furthermore, the transfer and overall image quality are impressive, especially for a film this old… so the pros outweigh the cons for this disc.

L'inferno functions as a fascinating snapshot within cinema’s progression in the early 20th century.  L'inferno’s sluggish and wordy intertitles, the lack of close-ups and camera movement, and even the film’s style of acting would become outdated almost immediately following the film’s release.  Still, it is amazing that a 101 year old film can have the impact that L'inferno still delivers.  It’s beautiful and horrific, mesmerizing and repulsive, thought-provoking and garish.  For a film that can stimulate such a complex network of responses so long after it was created, L'inferno is too often overlooked as an important, influential, and strikingly well-crafted work of cinematic art.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze