Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Devil re-incarnate… restored L’Inferno (1911)

For 'tis no enterprise to take in jest,
To sketch the bottom of all the universe…

This is a new DVD version of L’Inferno thoroughly restored by Cineteca di Bolgna and released in 2011 - the film’s centenary - by Cinema Ritrovato. Apologies for a lo-ong post but a bit of Dante due diligence was required!

The print now looks much cleaner and generally quite stunning for a film of this vintage. It runs at just over an hour, although the original length was much longer – over a kilometre of film. The English intertitles are taken from a Victorian translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and are much more in tune with the film’s intent than the 2004 Snapper version.

It has two choices of soundtrack, a modernistic one from Eddison Studio which uses atonal synth sweeps, synchronised shouts, crashes and bangs to startling effect and a more traditional, but none-the-less effective piano score from Marco Dalpane. Needless to say, both serve the action much better than Tangerine Dream on the 2004 release.

This DVD comes complete with a lengthy booklet containing essays (all in Italian) on the project – and a series of interesting extras including one showing the visual inspirations for the film – mostly from Gustave Doré’s haunting engravings.

In short: it’s one big upgrade and nothing less than this milestone film deserves.

L’Inferno was a massive undertaking filmed by many hands over a three year period and released in 1911, the 50th Anniversary of Italian Reunification – the Risorgimento – for whom Dante was an important inspiration (maybe more Italian than Shakespeare is English…). It was directed by Francesco Bertolini and Adolfo Padovan with further technical assistance from Giuseppe de Liguoro.

The film boldly attempted to recreate the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy and therefore deals with the descent into Hell by the writer.

It’s an uncanny masterpiece with lots of weirdly-memorable imagery - an unsettling mix of late middle-ages religious sensibilities with early twentieth century experimentation: Méliès meets Hieronymous Bosch.

There’s some outstanding cinematography with stunning in-camera effects showing gigantic figures, burning skies over the river Styx and famously the Devil himself looming hugely over the frozen landscape at the base of Hell chewing remorselessly on the soul of the most evil of evil-doers.

There is also extensive outdoor filming most notably at the film’s opening as Dante (Salvatore Papa) and Virgil (Arturo Pirovano) walk through some amazing mountainous viewpoints on the way to Limbo – they must have used some very strong camera men!

The beginning sees Dante seemingly lost in the woods…approaching middle age and confused by his own direction at what he viewed as the half-way point and crossroads of his existence.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost…

Beatrice, Dante’s ideal of womanhood (and whose untimely passing is marked in this poem and others) descends from Heaven to ask the poet Virgil to guide him and to show him the consequences of moral descent and the one true path.

They pass through the gates of Hell and encounter the uncommitted…souls who never took sides in the eternal conflict between good and evil. They are destined to forever inhabit the shores of Acheron…tortured by their regret and the manifestations of their conscience. Charon the Ferryman then arrives to transport them across the river Acheron to Hell where their journey will now encompass the famous nine levels.

In the First Circle is Limbo where reside the unbaptized and the virtuous pagans, who, though not sinful, did not accept Christ. This includes many righteous people – Virgil himself – but, because they died un-baptised they could not enter Heaven. Very much the uncompromising Christian thinking of the Fourteenth Century but at least Limbo has its plus points - proactive punishment has not yet really begun.

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest...

In the Second Circle the torture really begins as Dante encounters the lustful as they are born aloft by a relentless wind - one of the film's best visuals, as dozens of figures float across the screen. He encounters a couple - Francesca da Rimini who had committed adultery with her husband's brother, Paolo Malatesta.

They were the victims of her husband’s vengeance and have eternity together to reflect on their sins, cast up in the winds. The film uses numerous flashbacks to show the original sins that led to this punishment.

In the Third Circle the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the gluttons who lie on the ground pounded by ceaseless foul, icy rain… They are sightless and heedless of their neighbours, symbolizing the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives. In Hell the punishment very much fits the crime.

In the Fourth Circle are the Greedy who, as in Gustave Doré's illustrations, are weighted with huge money bags… be careful what you wish for.

Here saw I people, more than elsewhere, many,
On one side and the other, with great howls,
Rolling weights forward by main force of chest.

In the Fifth Circle Dante and Virgil find the River Styx in which the wrathful fight each other. The atheist Phlegyas reluctantly transports Dante and Virgil across to the City of Dis. This is shown in a stunning split screen, tinted red to highlight the ferocity.

They smote each other not alone with hands,
But with the head and with the breast and feet,
Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.

Initially the gates to Dis are blocked by fallen angels and the Furies, but the poets gain entrance thanks to angelic intervention. They are now free to enter the Sixth Circle and encounter the Heretics whose unquiet slumbers are forever disturbed by their flaming graves.

Passing into the Seventh Circle, Dante and Virgil encounter the Harpies who stand watch on the branches of trees formed by the souls of suicides.

Broad wings have they, and necks and faces human,
And feet with claws, and their great bellies fledged;
They make laments upon the wondrous trees.

The Eighth Circle contains the fraudulent and is called Malebolge. Within there are ten Bolgias dedicated to specific types of fraudster who are all tortured in befitting ways…

Here Dante’s imagination goes into absolute overdrive as he describes people buried head firs or with their heads twisted backwards. Hypocrites are dragged down by heavy cloaks, thieves plagued by serpents and the Sowers of Discord are mutilated.

Dante encounters Bertran de Born who carries his own severed head as a symbol of his reason having left his body… You can imagine the audience’s gasps at this point!

Giants guard the entrance to the Ninth Circle and lift the poets into the final stage of their journey. The film makers use clever perspective trickery here to good effect, aided by the flattened depth of field of fixed cameras.

Once inside, Dante and Virgil discover the frozen lake at the heart of Hell which is filled with the semi-submerged refrigerated souls of the treacherous.

The deeper into Hell we follow the more unsettling L’Inferno becomes as the nature of the tortures becomes increasingly cruel and severe: a real entrance into the medieval mind. Here is one man gnawing at the skull of another who, in life, was responsible for the starvation of the man and his sons.

Life was harsh and cruel and it follows that Hell had some work to do to more than match it.

Whereat I turned me round, and saw before me
And underfoot a lake, that from the frost
The semblance had of glass, and not of water.
Each one his countenance held downward bent;
From mouth the cold, from eyes the doleful heart
Among them witness of itself procures.

And, right at the centre of Hell is bound Lucifer – a demon with three faces each of which is chewing away on the soul of an evil man. The famous image of Old Nick snacking on the body of Judas is one of the most striking in L’Inferno and leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling even now.

"That soul up there which has the greatest pain,"
The Master said, "is Judas Iscariot;
With head inside, he plies his legs without”.

But, just as things become almost too horrible, the Poets climb past Satan and up through a hidden tunnel and back to the World:

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

I watched the film a number of times and it is not an easy “entertainment”. It’s not a horror film and it has a message, not only that all will be held accountable for their actions but also that we must take care to steer a true course ourselves.

For, in spite of the overtly Christian content, Dante’s poem is a wake up call for himself and us all to make the most of life because eternity or the quality of our last living moment will be fixed on our deeds. Almost a humanistic message regardless of the poet’s original intent.

L’Inferno is undoubtedly a major landmark in cinematic history and hopefully this restoration will get a wider release.

Also included in the extras are a series of short films all dealing in various ways with life in Hell: an excerpt from the daft Maciste in Hell (1926) and two interesting comedies, How Greediness Spoilt Foolshead's Christmas (1910) and The Devil on Two Sticks (1909), which is the more charming and technically-interesting.

Distribution is a little flaky and I got the last one then in stock at the BFI Filmstore – but I’m sure they’ll be getting more in. Otherwise, there are copies mistakenly listed under Books on (only 2 left at the tiem of writing!) or Cinema Ritrovato direct (currently out of stock).

Dante’s Divine Comedy is available in many editions and the Longfellow translation is on Amazon.

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