L ‘Inferno (1911)

It is not surprising that the earliest feature length Italian film is based on one of Dante’s Poems, Inferno. Not only was Dante a catalyst for Italian language, but Inferno, the poem, itself is a great source for a visual piece of entertainment. Inferno is a story that lends itself well to techniques only possible through film editing technology. Directors Bertolini, Padovan, and Liguoro, do an excellent job of bring this film to life and showing what film is capable of at a really early stage in the history of film.

L ‘Inferno is not the first Italian film, but likely the first noteworthy one that was over an hour long. Prior to L ‘Inferno, Italy was establishing their film industry. The first decade of the 20th century saw the forming of film production companies Milano Films, Cine, Ambrosio Film, Itala Film, and others. These production and distribution companies began turning out short films like, The Last Days of Pompeii and Nero or The Fall of Rome.

Dante’s Inferno lends itself well to the medium of film. Creating the hellscape and visual aspects described in the poem, and from artwork throughout the centuries, was ambitious for the creators of L ‘Inferno. There are visual effects throughout the film that are astonishing for the time and for years to come. I have yet to see a film preceding L ‘Inferno with special effects that are this ambitious, except for A Trip to the Moon.

The creative visual effects can be seen throughout the film, from start to finish. An early example is when Beatrice, Dante’s “Ideal”, descends down to Limbo from Paradise to ask Virgil to guide Dante. In this scene, Beatrice has a glowing halo behind her head that appears to be a double exposure of the spokes of a wheel spinning behind her head.

Beatrice recruits Virgil to help Dante.

Another visually creative scene is the moment that Dante and Virgil see the “carnal sinners” being blown by the stormy wind gusts from hell. The shot is another double exposure, although the sinners are traveling in a serpentine path in the background and foreground. They also appear to to be recreations of Renaissance style figures.

Virgil and Dante watch the “carnal sinners” as gusts of wind carry them through hell.

Towards the end of the film, Virgil and Dante run into the “sowers of discord”. This scene features nude and dismembered men passing by. This may be a mixture of actual amputees as well as use of black paint or cloth in front of a black background to hide particular body parts and features. Unfortunately, Dante and the filmmakers incorporated a depiction of Muhammad with a hole in his torso and entrails hanging out.

The character with his head missing from his body and instead being held in his hands takes the cake in this sequence. His sequence is crafted through what appears to be a prop head in his hand when he arrives and a second actor playing the head for the up close shot. To create the up close shot, I imagine that the “body” actor has paint or other coverings over his head and the “head” actor has the inverse on his body. The execution is convincing though, especially considering the time.

L ‘Inferno is jam packed with special effects. Scenes kept coming up that seemed that the filmmakers were trying to think of any possible way they could manipulate the film to create an effect. Although, perhaps they were just trying to bring Dante’s poem to life. Shortly after the “Sowers of discord”, we see Virgil and Dante confront giants. Here we see giants interacting with Dante and Vigil via forced perspective. Again, considering the time the execution you would think this was a tried and tested practice and not something implemented in the first decade of filmmaking.

The last effect that I feel needs to be mentioned is just before the end of the film. This scene depicts Lucifer in an icy cave eating Brutus and Cassius, assassinators of Roman Emperor Caesar. At first we see Lucifer in the distant background clearly eating someone head first, with large wings coming out behind him. As Dante and Virgil approach we get a better look at Lucifer, played by Augusto Milla, eating the bodies.

Each example of an interesting visual effect would be surprising for the time, let alone all of them. The list above does not even include all examples of special effects. Other scenes in the film depict things like flight, comprehensive costume design, a moving Cerberus, various color filters used throughout, etc… L ‘Inferno is on par with films like Haxan and that film is over a decade later. It is astounding to me that this many film techniques were executed in what is known as Italy’s first feature length film. Definitely an ambitious and well executed milestone for Italian Film.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Directed by: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe de Liguoro

Cinematography: Emilio Roncarolo

Based on the poem Inferno by: Dante Alighieri

Music by: Raffaele Caravaglios

Starring: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano, Giuseppe de Liguoro, and Augusto Milla.

Runtime: 1h 11m

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy

Distributed by: Milano Films, Helios

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