The Inferno (1911)
This Italian production shows both the sophisticated level that special effects had reached in Europe and the appetite of audiences for feature-length films on serious topics. In some ways, it remains grounded in the limitations of early 1910’s cinema – no close-ups (except Lucifer at the very end), predictable camera angles, limited camera movement, etc, but in others it demonstrates remarkable originality and willingness to experiment. In fact, I would say that the subject matter of Dante’s Inferno does not lend itself to a more traditional narrative approach, and it may well be that the movie is better for its “flaws,” better for trying an experimental structure than it would have been ten years later following the “rules” of “film grammar.”
The story is known to anyone familiar with classic literature: Dante describes being taken on a tour of Hell by the spirit of Virgil, who, as a Pagan is barred from Heaven and lives so to speak in the “up-scale suburbs” of Hell. This has been interpreted as Dante using his powers as a poet to do the impossible (go to Hell and return to tell the tale) and Virgil represents the spirit of Italian or Roman poetry upon whose shoulders he stands. At any rate, most of what they do is look at tormented souls in the various “circles” or levels of Hell. Once in a while, Dante sees someone he knew in life, or has heard of, and asks them to tell their story. More frequently, Virgil and Dante are challenged by one or more of the demons whose job it is to tormented the fallen souls, and Virgil authoritatively makes them stand aside. We see Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the gate to Hell, the burning walls of Dis, the river Acheron, the serpent Geryon, the giant Antaeus, and Lucifer himself at the end.
As I’ve suggested, each of these scenes plays out in a more-or-less theatrical format, with the camera defining a “stage” for the players to act on. However, within that framework, there’s some interesting creativity. Because of the concept of Hell as a vertical hierarchy, the outdoor shots are generally done on sloping hills or mountainsides (easy enough to find in Italy!). This in itself gives a different kind of geography to the “stages” I’m talking about. In general, the stages are large enough to fit a good number of naked extras as tormented souls. Many shots have twenty or more people visible, which is highly unusual for the time. We also get a kind of close-up, when Dante focuses his attention on a single soul, there will be a “jump cut” and we suddenly see Virgil, Dante, and the individual soul in a three-shot (still large enough to see them from head to toe). In that sense, this is one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of editing within scenes, rather than between them, although I think D.W. Griffith had done it already. Another narrative device, familiar to us today but quite new then, is the flashback, in which souls describe to Dante how they reached their sorry fate, and we cut to a dramatization of what they describe. The one camera movement I caught was a backward tracking shot to reveal a particular condemned soul.
The special effects may be based on the work of Méliès, but are in general in advance of his techniques, and far in advance of his imitators in the USA. Several matte shots are done, at least two of which required three or more separate shots to be integrated. One impressive example of this was the carnal sinners being blown about by the winds of Hell. We also see a couple of examples of stop-motion transformations as sinners are turned into lizards and other animals. And there are tricky matte shots in which leprous souls are missing legs or arms, or even carry their own heads about. Several characters are made to fly, presumably through the use of wires, and these shots look consistently good as well. There are a number of shots in Dis where actors are fairly close to (real) flames, and I found myself worrying about their long robes catching fire. A number of “Giants” are created through simple forced perspective, yet it works because the filmmakers are careful not to break the illusion (and because they don’t use multiple shots).
That’s not to say that everything is executed perfectly. For one thing, there are way too many Intertitles, more and longer than I’ve seen in any movie from this period. This was probably necessary because without the context of being told what was happening in each new scene before it begins, audiences would probably have been scratching their heads at the surrealistic grandeur. Still, it cuts into the pacing and makes it a slower experience to watch. In the shot where the souls are boarding the ship over Acheron, at one point Dante and Virgil are blocking our view of the action, which could have been avoided with a POV-edit, but it didn’t occur to them. Some of the “monsters” are a bit ridiculous-looking as well, particularly the fluffy Cerberus and the “black mastiffs” which look like perfectly friendly dogs.
Still, this was a bold project whose producers demonstrated a faith that cinema was a new kind of art form that could be used to show things that otherwise could only be imagined. They based the imagery on the illustrations of Gustav Dore for an older edition of the Divine Comedy, and on the whole their work paid off. Apparently it was a huge financial success and was successful in getting audiences to pay raised ticket prices in the era of Nickelodeons in the US. It remains an impressive document in the development of film history.
Camera: Emilio Roncarolo
Run Time: 1 Hour, 2 Min
You can watch it for free: here.