Friday, November 27, 2009


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.


  1. I share your affection for the near pantomime of silent-film acting, which is more like music in its direct appeal to the emotions (at least for for those who can set aside their prejudice against anything they imagine to be more primitive).

    As adults, we've learned to critically distance ourselves from the emotions a film is trying to evoke in us unless it passes through our various critiques. By eschewing dialog altogether, silent films remove an entire category from our repertoire of emotional-distancing tricks.

    Likewise, the primitive quality of the special effects makes it risible for us to critique their effectiveness, which gives us the opportunity to abandon that critical barrier, too, and instead more closely involve ourselves with the story, the way children do with fairy tales.

    The end result, for those of us lucky enough to be able to let go of those emotional-defense mechanisms, is that silent movies can be far more moving than talkies. Charlie Chaplin for reasons much along these lines was critical of talkies as an art forms.

    Thank you for your review of L'Inferno. I haven't seen it, but I look forward to doing so.

    In return, may I recommend La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (English: The Passion of Joan of Arc, ) one of my favorite silent films.

  2. A few years ago someone used that film for a video of Upwards of Endtime's song Circles...

    I haven't seen the actual film though...

  3. Actually, tyhe Inferno;s landscapes are not as far fetched as it seems. Inferno was written at a time of a terrible drought and there are parallels between Inferno's landscapes and the contemporary non-fictional accounts of what was going on in the drought stricken Italian countryside.

  4. Big fan of Metropolis, myself.

    'Course, that's...uh...

  5. James--

    From your description, I get the sense that the 1911 film is faithful to its source in a way that the recent release is not. On the one hand, I totally buy that. On the other, I have to ask, has the world changed more in the past century than it did in the previous six?

  6. I wonder what you think of the Judges Guild Inferno adventure. I remember one of the Grognards at the club I used to game at as a kid bragging that he had filled out the final 5 levels (the module only covered the first four). I also remember being totally fascinated by Gygax's version of Hell and its intersection with Dante's version, although it wasn't until many years later that I actually read Dante.

    Chinche - Charo's fashion label.

  7. I've never owned or read the JG Inferno module, although the descriptions of it I've read suggest that it's quite faithful at least to the details of Dante's poem.

    D&D's Nine Hells owe a lot to Dante, obviously, but the resemblance is pretty superficial in my opinion. Yes, there are nine circles and there are some geographical features/names in common, but the overall conception of what Hell is and why is quite alien to Dante.

  8. On the other, I have to ask, has the world changed more in the past century than it did in the previous six?

    Not to engender a socio-political discussion here -- and I mean that -- but I'd have to say that the answer is (mostly) yes, although I'd expand the period of change from the last century to the last two. In my opinion, the Western worldview from 1800 on has deviated quite a bit from that which prevailed in the centuries previous. That's not to imply that there weren't changes between 1300 and 1800 -- of course there were -- but I think the extent of those changes was much less than what came afterward.

  9. How awesome would it be to see a faithful, big budget film version of Inferno?

    Even Larry Niven's very cool Inferno (where a Sci Fi author gets drunk, falls out a window at a convention party, and goes through Dante's hell) would make an awesome film if done right (but the odds of "done right" in Hollywood are poor at best).

  10. James,

    Thanks for the moving piece about Inferno. As an Italian I cannot but love Dante: the Commedia basically is the text that is most able to tell who I am and where I come from. Bizarrely, it is not an ethnic identitarian epic. It's the journey of the "Everyman" - as an American poet said. A testimony of the universal ("catholic") vocation of a people, that was and is dramatically unachieved as a nation or country.
    Yes, many things have changed since the 1800. But Dante runs deep in the veins of our culture. That was suddenly revealed, a few years ago, by the huge popular success of public readings of Dante by comedian Roberto Beningni. The guy, who you may know (and maybe dislike) for the Oscar winning 'Life is Beautiful', basically put on a show of unadulterated Dante reading, not shying away from any of the politically incorrect bits and religious implications. It was a blast to see thousands of people immerse in the language of the XIII century, which was comprehensible, which spoke to them, which moved them deeply... be it for the flight of Paolo and Francesca, for the flame and extreme voyage of Ulysses, for the cut going through Manfred's noble brow, for the marriage of St. Francis and Poverty, for the hymn to the Virgin Mary.

  11. I've recently fallen in love with silent films as well. I highly recommend The Thief of Bagdad, some great inspiration for OD&D style adventure in there.

  12. Speaking of the Nine Hells, Dante's Inferno inspired me to make the Underworld more like that in my campaign, and 7 layers for 7 deadly sins. The Nine Hells is only part of the great chasm. And yes, this gives it christian connotations, but such have always lurked in d&d's background.

    As for silent movies, Lovecraft fans should really check out the Call of Cthulhu silent movie made by the HP Lovecraft Society. It is made in modern days but mimicking rather well the old silent movie feel. You will not be disappointed my friends...

  13. James, you make some wonderful observations about silent cinema. I also see strong parallels with highly stylized Asian theater such as kabuki and Peking opera. In those traditions, the audience is also assumed to be very familiar with the source material (as you were with Dante while watching L'Inferno) so that allusory gestures and images can be appreciated. I'm afraid this kind of aesthetic is often lost on modern Western audiences addicted to hyper-realism. In many ways, both silent cinema and Old School gaming represent aesthetic paths that could have been taken.

    BTW, on a related note, have you seen the silent version of "Call of Cthulhu" that was done a few years back? It was set in the twenties and filmed in the style of a 1920's silent b/w horror movie ( To my taste it is the most effective film adaption of Lovecraft so far.

    For anyone who thinks of silent cinema as inferior or primitive, I also recommend von Stroheim's "Greed," Murnau's "Nosferatu," Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin," and Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" (among others), all of which are complete and enduring works of art.

  14. Not to engender a socio-political discussion here -- and I mean that

    well I had to try.

  15. BTW, on a related note, have you seen the silent version of "Call of Cthulhu" that was done a few years back?

    I have and I think very highly of it. I definitely agree that it's the best and most faithful adaptation of any Lovecraft story to date.

  16. well I had to try.

    If I didn't already catch enough flak over my opinions about gaming, I might be less reticent to talk about other topics. As it is, I have enough trouble fending off caricatures of my feelings about a hobby that I'd rather avoid adding to my troubles :)