Silent Film Series: L'Inferno [1911]

Signore e signori! 

Allow me to formally introduce you to the first silent adaptation of The Divine Comedy, L'Inferno, the world's second full-length feature film in history, clocking in at over three years in the making and collectively directed by three highly ambitious and thoroughly audacious fellows: Giuseppe de LiguoroAdolfo Padovan, and Francesco Bertolini. In case you were wondering what the very first full-length feature was us Australians had the rest of the world beat with a re-telling of Ned Kelly and his gang, The Story of the Kelly Gang so har-har </immaturity>.

For those not quite up to speed about the genesis of this movie, The Divine Comedy is an epic poem by Italian poet Dante Alighieri in which sees the travels of Dante in his literary form (humble!), his lady Beatrice and his guide Virgil through the nine circles of Hell, Purgatory and finally Heaven. This was a massive poem and still endures to this day as one of the epics of classic literature. The prose is largely allegorical but it makes interesting observations about the notions of faith, value and personal integrity in the society of the 1300s with special attention naturally being paid to the world of the damned. Although critics still debate the actual length on the page, everybody has come to the accord that this poem is long as a tapeworm (bad analogy?).

So, bearing all of this in mind, Padovan, Bertolini and de Liguoro strived to make this behemoth of a tale come to life on the moving screen, but ultimately they could only afford to tell the section of the story that takes place in Satan's darling corner of the afterlife. Can you imagine how much longer it would have taken them to produce a full retelling of Alighieri? Their great grandchildren would be doing it by this point! Alas, I digress.

Get on with it.

So what is it about L'Inferno that makes it fundamentally one of the most important cinematic contributions made to movie history? To me, this is perhaps one of the earliest versions of exploitation spliced with art house because L'Inferno does not hold back in showing the audience genuinely troubling sights of human souls suffering continuous, relentless torture thanks Satan and his minions. We see men and women being stripped down to their shuddering naked forms, flogged, flayed, violated, assaulted, molested, forced to endure unspeakable torments while they labor being repeatedly lashed by leering demons in the pits of Hell where the laws of time or the decency of humanity have no bearing. 

Yet, despite all of this, what makes the film respected was the time and nail-shredding effort the three directors spent in order to make this film happen. For three years they toiled on the production, fighting back against religious uproar, running into several financial roadblocks, hustling constantly to keep the project above water, striving to maintain creative control so the final product would live up to their collaborative vision. That sort of lust to succeed is reflected in the movie and nothing is more awe-inspiring and rewarding for an artist to see their work being finished and finally being able to show it to the public. If there is one highly sensitive thing to be addressed about this feature is a culturally questionable portrayal of Muhammad that has subsequently been subjected to discontent and I won't pretend to know the back and forth about this dialogue, but in a film that deals with the particulars of Hell and damnation the inclusion of a non-Christian religious icon is bound to stir problems. To be honest however, there is no denying the sheer power of witnessing the Nine Circles in their unholy glory, every section devoted to the most supreme of sins that humans are forbidden to commit before we finally encounter Dis himself eternally devouring the writhing form of Judas surrounded by hapless transients upon a frozen lake. A disturbing yet stunning phenomenon.

Visual-wise, after more than hundred years, L'Inferno still manages to draw a significant amount of shock. Most of the production budget was spent on creating the world of the damned along with it's inhabitants and every lira shows up. I am not somebody who is familiar with all of the tricks of the trade when it comes to practical visual effects, so when I watched this for the first time I was gob-smacked by how detailed and off the wall some of the visual effects were. I found myself wondering "How did they do that?" I can only imagine what audiences felt back in 1911 when they saw this sort of stuff they had never seen before, if not conceived in their own minds. By turns horrific and morbidly beautiful, Hell has never looked so... well... good. In addition to the intricacy behind these sights, the directors made a conscious and wise decision to incorporate visual cues from French artist Gustav Doré who specialised in producing work inspired by Aligheiri's very poem. A lot of Doré's vision was replicated to give a distinctive flavor to the picture. Feast your eyes on the wonders below, my friends;


To this day, not only is this film one of the pioneers of in camera practical trickery, it is the first film which showed Hell in such intimate, grueling detail. People will always argue about the standards of decency of what you can and cannot show on the reel, but all of us as a species cannot but be curious when it comes to extremity. One only needs to look at the multitude of media we have at our very fingertips to understand that we are constantly on the lookout for something new, something bold, sometimes even down right wrong to keep our interest. When L'Inferno was set upon the unsuspecting masses, nobody anticipated their senses to be subjected to what they saw and even now, there is no denying the dynamism and aptitude that fueled this endeavor or the skill that went behind bringing Aligheiri's masterpiece to life for all eyes to see. 

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