The other day, after I'd expressed dismay at the upcoming Dante's Inferno video game, I was told that there had in fact been a film based on Inferno. It was an Italian-made silent film from 1911 entitled simply L'Inferno. As luck would have it, the film was recently reconstructed, using footage from the Library of Congress and British Film Institute to supplement existing prints of the film from other sources, many of which were not complete. The entirety was released in 2004 on DVD and, thanks to Amazon, I was able to obtain a copy, which I sat down and watched yesterday.
The film is a little over an hour long (71 minutes, to be precise) and I sat there the entire time rapt. I don't know how often you've watched silent movies, but I've become a big fan of them over the years and L'Inferno only solidifies my affection for them. There's something very primal about images without spoken dialog. That's particularly true in films like this one, where the images are so bizarre and frequently unsettling. Silent films, I also find, showcase a style of acting that ceased to exist once talkies became common. It's an almost-pantomime style that reminds me a bit of the way opera singers behave when they're on stage. On one level, it looks patently ridiculous, but on the other hand, the melodramatic, easily telegraphed emoting of these actors strikes a chord somewhere deep inside me. It's hard to explain, but, on some level, the very unreal nature of the way they're behaving makes it seem more real to me. I admit that sounds like nonsense and maybe it is, but there it is nonetheless.
Regardless, it works exceedingly well in this particular case, because the images onscreen are so fantastical. I have been a huge admirer of The Divine Comedy since college. For a long time, I was quite obsessed with the work and, even now, I find it haunts my imagination. Though I prefer Purgatorio to the other two parts of the work, there's no question that Inferno makes for the best spectacle. And what spectacle this early Italian film provides! The special effects are, frankly, amazing for their day and, again, their obvious artificiality -- their unreality -- made them much more affecting for me. It's similar to the way that I find the original Night of the Living Dead much, much more frightening than any of its successors. The rough, almost unfinished look of it strikes me as more realistic and thus more terrifying.
It's hard for me to judge how accessible this film would be to those unfamiliar with Inferno. There are dialog cards between some of the scenes, but they're short and often cryptic if you don't already know the poem. For myself, seeing the various flashbacks the damned tell to Dante, explaining how they wound up in Hell, was very moving. Piero della Vigna's tale of being falsely accused of treason, punished by blinding, and suicidal despair at never again being able to see the sun, for example, remains indelibly in my memory, as does the horror of Count Ugolino forever gnawing on the head of his enemy, Archbishop Ruggieri. I noted too that the film includes Mohammed among the damned, his chest torn open as punishment for the sin of schism (medieval Christians believed Islam to be not a separate religion but a breakaway from Christianity). I somehow doubt the video game will include such a detail.
All in all, L'Inferno is a remarkable movie, hewing very closely to the source material but nevertheless being a satisfying experience in its own right. I remarked to my wife that it would still make an amazing film today, although I suspect its worldview is too alien to most modern people and would thus have to be "updated" before Hollywood would even consider it. If so, I'd rather this 1911 masterpiece be the only film treatment of it we ever see.