Inferno 1911

Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padavan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro
"Through me you pass into the city of woe. Through me you pass into eternal pain. Through me among the people lost for aye. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!"
Three years in the making, Dante's epic vision of Hell is brought to life in Italy's first-ever feature length film. The poet takes a cheap holiday in other people's misery, and my esteemed employer takes a trip down Memory Lane. 

Dante imagines himself wandering through a dark wood, where in the distance he sees the Hill of Salvation, home of his beloved Beatrice. He is set upon by a lion, a panther and a she-wolf, symbolising Pride, Avarice and Lust respectively. Beatrice sends the poet Virgil to rescue and guide Dante to Salvation: the wild beasts are banished, and Virgil leads Dante through the portals of the Inferno... "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"...

Virgil and Dante are ferried across the river Archeron by Charon the boatman, and from there the poets journey onward through the nine circles of Hell. They encounter demons, giants and fabulous beasts, as Virgil shows Dante the many torments endured by the souls of the Damned. Finally they reach the Lake of Ice in the ninth circle, where they come face to face with "the arch-traitor" Lucifer himself...

Inferno has the distinction of being the first feature-length film to be screened in the USA. Earlier features produced domestically, such as The Life of Moses and Les Miserables (both 1909), had been released in monthly instalments, at a time when distributors still clung to their belief that an audience would not be willing to sit through a film for an entire hour. Sam and Jack Warner, before they ran their own studio, bought the US rights to Inferno and took it on the road, beginning in Hartford, Connecticut, in August 1911. The film turned a tidy profit, paving the way for the first US feature-length release, Oliver Twist, the following year.

"Sowers of discord" - unknown cast member
Hollywood overcame its distrust slowly and grudgingly. Over 200 feature-length films were released in the US during 1914, most probably in a belated response to success of the European prestige productions that followed in Inferno's wake. It seems the Americans were suspicious of art in their picture houses, which were still regarded as poor relations of the theatre back then. Their more literary-minded European cousins had fewer qualms. In fact, work on Inferno had apparently begun back in 1909 for a different studio before production was transferred to Milano Film, possibly for financial reasons.

Milano was owned by Inferno's co-director Giuseppe De Liguoro, an aristocratic dandy whose productions were much admired by his contemporaries. The finished film premiered at the Teatro Mercadante in Naples on March the 10th 1911 and the public response was positive from the outset. It had been almost three years in the making, and represented a substantial commitment for De Liguoro. It had a budget estimated at around 100,000 lire, and a cast and crew allegedly numbering upwards of 150. 

Augusto Milla as Lucifer
Even for 1911, Inferno can hardly be said to be cutting-edge, though the technical effects are certainly ambitious. Depictions of the three-headed dog Cerebus or the serpent Geryon aren't particularly convincing,  but the inventive set design and smart use of exterior locations effectively bring Dante's hellish landscapes to life.

Of course, having such a literary classic as source material offers a certain amount of artistic license, and many gruesome set-pieces are presented in unflinching detail. "Sowers  of discord" are shown being maimed by demons, one of them carrying his own severed head; Count Ugolino gnaws on the skull of his rival in a pit of ice; trees spurt blood in the Wood of Suicides; a gigantic Lucifer is shown with another mortal sinner, Brutus, thrashing around in his mouth. The only scene that does appear to have been toned down a little is one where damned souls are seen bathing in a river of filth, which looks a bit too clean to be the tide of excrement described in Dante's original.

Commentators also note the film's frequent male nudity, a rare sight in cinemas in 1911, though it's hard to imagine the directors coming up with a credible alternative. The legions of the damned in tennis shorts? This was a loophole that Hollywood movie men would soon learn to exploit: one only has to look at the later Babylonian orgies of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance or any number of Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epics to see the kind of licentiousness that would never be tolerated in a contemporary social drama...

All that aside, it's debatable how much of Inferno we are able to see nowadays. An estimate of the length of the original release at around 5,000 feet gives a running time of 55-60 mins. The DVD described below runs to 64 minutes minus credits, but appears to have a scene or two missing or severely shortened. A longer version is reported to have been released around 1914, and the film stayed in circulation in some form or another until well after the end of the first World War. Damned if I know.

End Credits:
Salvatore Papa (Dante), Arturo Pirovano (Virgil), Giuseppe de Liguoro (Farinata degli Uberti / Pier delle Vine / Count Ugolino), Emilise Beretta (Beatrice), Augusto Milla (Lucifer). Atillio Motta (unknown)
Cinematography: Emilio Roncarolo, Production Design: Francesco Bertolini and Sandro Properzi, Based on 'The Divine Comedy' by Dante Alighieri
Milano Films, Italy
Running Time 64 mins.

L'Inferno (Snapper Music). This edition, the only commercially available release, features an electronic soundtrack by Tangerine Dream recorded in 2005. Several reviewers have been critical of the music, finding especially that the passages of the poem sung in English are distracting or intrusive. If so, turn the sound off and listen to this instead.

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