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First Production in Italian Film History - L'Inferno
This film was one of the silent films made by a small group of artists, that because the time, it was before any formal structure as to what content of film should be, produced sometimes startlingly unusual works. Most of the films before 1907 were shown locally but by 1912 films crossed the oceans.

Click here to view the official advertisement for the 1911 release of L'Inferno. L'Inferno took over three years to make and it involved more than 150 people. It was the first full length Italian feature film ever made and it was first screened in Naples in the Teatro Mercadante on 10 March 1911. Dante Alighieri's writings as a narrative poem became the basis for an Italian produced black and white silent film. Below is a brief description of the story. In this era, artists were more concerned with larger spiritual issues. Demons and monsters from the skies were ever present.

The Divine Comedy was a narrative poem describing Dante's journey through Hell. Midway on his journey through life, Dante realizes he has taken the wrong path. The Roman poet Virgil searches for the lost Dante at the request of Beatrice; he finds Dante in the woods on the evening of Good Friday in the year 1300 and serves as a guide as Dante begins his religious pilgrimage to find God. To reach his goal, Dante passes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

The Divine Comedy was not titled as such by Dante; his title for the work was simply Commedia or Comedy. Dante's use of the word "comedy" is medieval by definition. To Dante and his contemporaries, the term "comedy" meant a tale with a happy ending, not a funny story as the word has since come to mean. Here below is a typical scene. The film is similar to Dore’s graphics.

The Divine Comedy book is made up of three parts, corresponding with Dante's three journeys: Inferno, or "Hell"; Purgatorio, or "Purgatory"; and Paradiso, or "Paradise." Each part consists of a prologue and approximately 33 cantos. Since the narrative poem is in an exalted form with a hero as its subject, it was written as an epic poem of fair complexity.

The story is built on the mythology of the known world from ages before about Heaven, Hell, Gods, sinners and saints, the demons of Hell and of the gods and is a good study of the mythology of the ancient world. The spirits of our modern society now just a faint glimmering of, sometimes seen in the ether of the night or when you can feel the world beyond the heat and noise of the suburban machine. That essence, faint in the dark, or the glimmering of the sun through the sky on a winter day. This film is about what they felt was on the other side of our world, below our world, our foundation.

Dante and Virgil enter the wide gates of Hell and descend through the nine circles of Hell. In each circle they see sinners being punished for their sins on earth. On Easter Sunday, Dante emerges from Hell. Through his travels, he has found his way to God and is able, once more, to look upon the stars.

You can be surprised when looking up a story on the net at the various versions of it that have been made. Even a minor tale can have along trail of activity in different filmic versions. “Ben Hur” was a play first then several film versions before the one we all know was produced. The film restoration was finally finished in 2004. It is a interesting film to watch as you can see the social thinking of the time. The complexity of society throughout the world was far ahead of technology. Passions, deceits, greed, jealousy and all were part of the human existence way before 1912.

Recently, at a Academy screening about film sound, I watched some film from 1914 or so that was urban New York upper society comedy. The thinking was very smart and all the human themes we know today were there. Silent film innovation began with Georges Melies from 1895 to 1905. He pioneered the use of painting sets, which were made up of “flats”, canvas over wood frames to make up any sort of background needed. Other effects like multiple exposure, matting and fast or slow speed exposure with the use of wires to make things and people float or fly in/out of scenes gave a wide range of visual story telling elements for the Italian silent filmmaker to use in 1912.

This film has interesting artistic visions created by the basic silent film effects and the artistry of the background painters and costume people. This film is trapped in a moment of time just before D. W. Griffith made his first film with parallel editing and more complex camera shots for each scene. The camera in this film is mostly stationary, while we watch Dante and Virgil move around the frame. The innovations in visual story telling were only moments away, but the more simple techniques of this film are supported by the imagination of the backgrounds and the passionate acting of the sinners.

This film is just before some simple color ability and this film, like “The Thief of Baghdad” with Douglas Fairbanks senior, would have been very interesting with even just some hand-tinting added in.

The Elders in the Mystic Procession... I found the visual imagination fascinating. There is some humor in almost every scene or at least some compassion for the characters in the scene. The story is about characters from our ancient past that are fairly interesting. Some of the scenes like one in the beginning where Dante and Virgil ride on a boat across the river Acheron into Hell have very passionate acting from the ones playing the souls of the dead waiting.

Here is a little description... Virgil gets the giant Antaeus, chained to a rock for his crimes, to lift up him and Dante and place them in final circle of hell, where traitors are immersed in a lake of ice. At the end of this circle (of Hell) is Lucifer himself, a gigantic winged dude gnawing on the bodies of Brutus and Cassius. The poets climb down the sides of Lucifer's vast body and manage to exit Hell for good.

So if you watch L'Inferno you will be immersed into the mythology and characters of the past, and will be surprised to see that the ancient world. The creativity of the sets, especially one where the sinners are stuck in ice with the top half at most of their bodies sticking through is very good. The ability for silent filmmakers to create and show the world of a fairly complex story is worthwhile watching in itself. Looking past the lack of technology at the creativity of the filmmakers can be a journey in itself, all human emotions then as now the same, a universal stage of the civilization of the world shown on film even then. We see the ability of the artists themselves.

The new score was done by Tangerine Dream. This group has done mostly instrumental albums and scores for films like “Risky Business” with Tom Cruise. The music for the most part is effective, a little too repetitive, partly due to the fact that the group uses only a few instruments but fitting well into the film for the most part. The scoring by Tangerine Dream was part of a package and helped fund the restoration so some bad helps bring good. A score by a classic orchestra would fit better, but the film was not shot to be scored so the music can flow with the scenes but not be an integral part of the separate moments in them, just a musical commentary to them.

This is a film worthy to see as other silent films are examples of artistic creativity of the time and a exploration into the universal themes explored by Dante’s writings. For any person, and especially filmmakers, a visual treat.

Click here to buy L'Inferno on DVD If you are going to study the art stories and culture in silent films, the era of the 1900’s, then this is one you must see. Independent filmmakers like Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguorno who made L'Inferno, Georges Melies, D.W Griffith, and others in England, Germany and around the world had no controls on content and produced some of the most interesting visual art in film. The American filmmakers were producing history all worthy stuff to see and take inspiration from.

Italian filmmakers and artists created fine works from the beginning of film. A recent example of Italian filmmaking, with all the sets, costumes props and the camera work being done by Italian artists is “Dracula”, 1992, by Francis Ford Coppola. L'Inferno is a fine example of Italian artisianship in the 1900’s.

Review By George Rigney