*. I suspect it’s true that most people who set out to read Dante’s Commedia only read Inferno. While scholars and Dante aficionados will insist that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are equally as interesting and rewarding, for popular tastes nothing quite beats a tour of sinners being tortured in hell. So it’s understandable that this film, which might have been the first part of a trilogy, had no sequels, despite being a big box office success.
*. The fact that Inferno has rarely received this kind of epic treatment — this film took three years to make and was the first feature film to be shown in its entirety in one screening, which allowed theatres to boost ticket prices — suggests the difficulties involved. But in 1911 these weren’t insurmountable. A long movie could be nothing more than a series of vignettes with only a loose narrative structure, since all the audience really came to see was hell’s greatest hits.
*. The visuals didn’t have to be wildly original. In fact they leaned heavily on the popular nineteenth-century illustrations of Gustave Doré, which is what the audience would have been expecting. Given its reception I think people who went to see L’Inferno in 1911 probably felt they got their money’s worth. Viewing it today, can we say the same?
*. The general structure works. Dante’s hell is a theatrical sort of place, with Virgil taking the pilgrim from stage to stage or level to level, presenting him with various tableaux of the damned. So it doesn’t matter that it looks stagey, as all the underworld’s a stage anyway. And the framing of many of these scenes, with the use of arcs and vanishing lines and other theatrical tricks is surprisingly effective. This looks like Doré come to life, those writhing naked bodies as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and pools.
*. Somewhat surprisingly, the big spectacle moments and monsters are the weakest links. The three beasts who confront Dante in the first canto are a silly-looking leopard and lion and a positively playful she-wolf (a friendly and unthreatening dog). Perhaps the rule that you should always avoid working with animals hadn’t been learned yet. The pack of hounds in the forest of suicides also seem as though they’re just looking for a good time (or some treats). But given the primitive stage of creature effects they didn’t have a lot of options.
*. Otherwise, Minos is just a fat guy with a tail, Cerberus a puppet, and Geryon is only briefly seen as a model being lowered on a string. The giants Plutus and Antaeus come off the best, with the giant effects being reasonably well handled by split screens and false perspectives. I appreciate their trying to represent the most CGI moment in Dante’s poem, the transformation of the thieves into snakes and lizards (and vice versa), but that part is not very impressive.
*. Where L’Inferno really scores is with the human-scale renderings of pain and suffering. Somewhat oddly, the longest episode we have is the tale of the suicide Pietro della Vigna (a story I couldn’t even remember from the poem). His blinding is one of the highlights, a moment whose violence still has the power to disturb. Also effective are the mutilated bodies amond the sowers of discord, like Muhammad with his chest torn open and Bertrand de Born carrying his own head like a lantern. And only the film’s eschewing of close-ups (not remarkable at the time) makes Ugolino’s gnawing of Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull while stuck in a skating rink up to his chest less shocking.
*. One of the reason Dante’s poem has survived so long is because of its low and high-brow appeal. It’s a complex work of massive learning and a freak show written in the vernacular. As a blockbuster the effect here is definitely more of the latter, though credit must be given for what is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the poem.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period the question of what has held up is coloured by how much you enjoy the silent-film aesthetic. I find these movies charming, even to the point where corruptions in the film only add to the effect, like the pops and hisses that were a part of old vinyl recordings. In fact, there are scenes here where some of the artifacts on screen do seem an aid to the effects, making the storms seem worse and hell more hellish generally.
*. Obviously the state of the art at the time it was made limited what they could do, and what you should expect. Really there’s not much acting here aside from the usual oversize silent-film gestures. Sweeping arm motions and the like. That does, however, fit with the rest of the presentation, where Virgil seems always to be saying “Lo!” and “Behold!” to the pilgrim (and to us).
*. But perhaps what surprises and impresses the most is how it was borrowed from so often by later movies for its depictions of hell while Dante’s poem was never again attempted on this scale. Either the vision or the ambition may have been exhausted, as much as they were made obsolete.