Friday, 25 March 2011

A Criminally Overlooked Masterpiece - 1911 - L'Inferno - Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan & Giuseppe de Liguoro

L’Inferno is one of the most ambitious films ever made. It was the first ever Italian feature film, took over three years to make, involved a cast of over 150 people and required the work of three separate directors. Some of these statistics may not sound impressive today, but at the time it marked a quantum leap in terms of scale and aspiration.

One of this blog’s goals has been to find key films between the making of The Great Train Robbery and The Birth of A Nation and prove that a whole decade of great cinema has been woefully overlooked. We have looked at many strong examples so far, but few can smash the myth that nothing consequential happened in cinema between 1903 and 1915 like L’Inferno.

I have read reviews lamenting the fact that the film pre-dates Griffith’s pioneering of the close up and that the camera remains static for the majority of the film. But I suspect film historians have overemphasised early silent cinema’s technical innovations over its imagistic brilliance. For there are four or five scenes in this film which are as breathtaking as any I have encountered in cinema.

The Lumiere Brothers held up a mirror to our lives, Méliès took us to the moon, Porter took us to the Wild West, Blackton pioneered animation; these three Italian directors take us to Hell. And given that it is five years before the brutalities of the Somme and mustard gas, given that it was made in the century which included the brutalities of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, The Great Terror, My Lai and much more – film’s first (and most successful) portrayal of Hell is of significant importance.

Furthermore, it is clear the broad influence the film has had on subsequent cinematic work - from Pasolini to Romero. The film was also successful when it was released – taking $2 million in the US alone (When this figure is adjusted for inflation it comes to just over $45 million. A remarkable figure when one considers that cinema was still a fledgling concept). Not that a film’s financial success can be equated with its aesthetic quality, but what today might be considered an ‘art house’ film was once a genuine ‘blockbuster’. 

There is one major caveat. The film was restored relatively recently; producer Tim Pierce painstakingly put together the most complete version of the film from archival footage. The team behind the restoration decided to allow Tangerine Dream to score the film – and it is a contender for the most inappropriate soundtrack ever recorded. I think Tangerine Dream have made some compelling music (Zeit is a spellbinding album) but this score is awful. It often undercuts key visuals with unnecessarily melodramatic sounds, but worst of all is a vocalist who murders some of the most visually striking scenes with absurdly reductive lyrics. I recommend watching the film a completely different piece of music (Could someone recommend the ideal piece of music to accompany the film?). 

L’Inferno is not the first cinematic adaptation of a literary text but is certainly the most successful thus far. 1910 adaptations of King Lear and Frankenstein successfully channelled their source material to allow the works to adhere to the limited time span of the one-reeler. But with L’Inferno, the three directors are able to tackle their source material without having to remove the majority of the original framework. But L’Inferno does not simply tackle Dante’s masterful work piece by piece; it provides it with a new setting which illuminates several key moments.

The film’s opening scenes do not hint at its imminent visual delights. The film is at its weakest when it portraying animals and beasts (the leopard and Cerberus both look tacky - see Cerebrus below) as Dante and Virgil wanders around a mountain.

But as they approach the River Acheron, the film’s anarchic visual aesthetic becomes clearer. Scores of naked bodies attempt to board Charon’s ferry as he beats them off with his oar (see image below). There is no precedent for such a scene in cinema pre-1911; you can have all the Griffithian close-ups you want, but the immediacy with which these images embed themselves on your subconscious is striking.

It is also important to draw attention to the scale and horror of the imagery as it distinguishes the film from being a vision of Hell through the borrowed vision of Georges Méliès. For the film uses plenty of Mélièsian trickery and is littered with references and homage to Méliès; particularly when we see the face of the devil. But where Méliès worked with no more than four or five actors, these Italian directors are happy to fill the lens with human bodies (the power of the scene where Dante and Virgil stand over the group of flatterers showering in the river of filth is partly due to sheer number of flatterers bathing in excrement - see image below). 

This also demonstrates that the three directors embraced the comic savagery of Dante’s vision of Hell. Hence the face of the devil also contains the bodies of Cassius and Brutus trying to kick free – this is the imagery of comic apocalyptic nightmares.

L’Inferno also introduces a key narrative tool: the flashback. While we have seen historic films such La Presa Di Roma and Nerone skip between passages of time – L’Inferno ‘flashes back’ to a character’s life before they entered Hell and then returns to their terrible surroundings. 

The device is employed on three separate occasions and is at its most brutally effective when flashing back to the life of Count Ugolino (see images below). When Dante and Virgil encounter Ugolino, he is gnawing away at the brain of Archbishop Ruggieri. Count Ugolino then recounts the tale of him and his family’s starvation by the Archbishop, as we see his children dead on the floor as he is dizzied from hunger. As the image returns to his soul in Hell, the contrast could not be more striking as the ‘reality’ of this inception of Hell becomes apparent.

L’Inferno has every right to be acclaimed as one of the most important and influential films ever made – yet it languishes in cinematic purgatory as an afterthought to the oeuvre of Griffith. Yet as the balls of fire reign down on the blasphemers (see image below) and we have a scene so ahead of its time with its allusions to the great film on war, it becomes crystal clear that L’Inferno is a film of superlative quality that demands immediate insertion into the cinematic canon.      


  1. I've been meaning to see this one for years (it was screened at UCL in 2003, but I missed it for some reason). Seeing all the images you've gathered here have reminded me how overdue (and essential) it is that I finally do so...!

    As for the soundtrack, looking at the images (and given the nationality and subject) I think I have the perfect suggestion. The avant-garde Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino composed a 15 hour long orchestral work about Dante's Divina Commedia for a 100-part TV series in 1987. The epic music went unrecorded for years, but in 2009 it was edited down to 3 CDs, released on the Kairos label as Sui Poemi Concentrici.

    Get hold of that recording, turn the sound of L'Inferno down, the stereo up, and I'd say you'd end up with a match made in Bertolini/Sciarrino heaven.

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  4. I couldn't agree with you more about the plodding, sophmoric and overall terrible lyrics and unmelodic vocals added to this film by Tangerine Dream.  While trying to read the captions, one hears this female vocalist singing incredibly weak lyrics, it really was a shame that my first viewing of this amazing work of cinema was horribly marred by the audio.

    I will watch it again after I rebuild it with new audio (I was thinking perhaps Bela Bartok, or even Stravinski.. to suggest a few).

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Great post, thanks for all that v informative and thought-provoking info. How about Ferenc Liszt's 'Dante Symphony' would be a nice coupling. Cannot agree more about Tangerine Dream's cringe lyrics. Just listening to their other stuff now and actually quite like it- if they had stuck to this it might have been bearable!

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