Genre: Silent / Fantasy / Horror
Synopsis: First film adaptation of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, with vivid set decor and imaginative, surreal imagery.
Special Features: n/a
Although Italy’s first feature-length film was never deemed lost, it suffered the usual fate of silent movies, losing scenes due to damage, wear & tear, faded colour tinting, censored nudity by conservative censor boards, plus its original score vanishing.
It’s somewhat understandable that little music survives from the Roman era – with no recordings and no standard form of notation passed down through centuries, there are no songs or larger scale compositions to sample – but the idea that a full score from 1911 didn’t survive even a century is downright absurd.
Raffaele Caravaglios’ only film score is lost, and is perhaps the mostly logical casualty of time and neglect, given it only existed on paper and had to be performed live, compared to the physical film print which contained Inferno’s images and story; it’s a circumstance that also befell Joseph Carl Breil’s score for Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1925), of which no trace exists.
The Cineteca di Bologna undertook an epic restoration around 2006-2007, sourcing a rare print from the BFI, plus missing material found in Denmark, Bulgaria, and UCLA in the States to create the most complete version of a film that reportedly took in more than $2 million at the U.S. box office, and proved audiences worldwide were willing to sit through a long-form film in one shot.
What may have helped keep audiences attentive was Dante’s story and risqué material that’s still quite provocative: this first film version of The Divine Comedy features partial nudity and magnificently surreal images which undoubtedly influenced future filmmakers with its vivid mis-en-secene. The film’s legendary production phase includes a nearly 3 year period, a large cast and meticulous sets, and clever optical effects which may seem charming but are quite innovative.
Dante’s story, as adapted and directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro, has Roman poet Virgil / Virgilio (Arturo Pirovano) encountering a wandering Dante (Salvatore Papa) in the forest, and escorting him on a journey that progresses to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, closing the film on a happy / ‘comedic’ end that’s peaceful rather than amusing.
The mouth of a mountainous cave bookends the film, and the pair descend tunnels, wander through caverns, and climb down jagged rocks, eventually encountering the River Styx, which they cross before reaching areas perpetually scorched with fire, frozen by horrid temperature extremes, or smothered in toxic fumes.
With Caravaglios’ music no longer extant, the first attempted restoration around 2004 sported a score by Tangerine Dream, and most unusual for the group, contained prominent use of vocal material. TD’s involvement somewhat parallels Giorgio Moroder’s handling of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which involved a search for missing footage, a new rock-pop vocal score, but a shortened edit tailored for the 1984 teen market whom Moroder felt would better digest Lang and Thea von Harbou’s epic dystopian futurism at 80 mins.
Inferno’s 2007 restoration has inspired further scoring opportunities, such as a solo piano version that’s perhaps more akin to the piano and organ scores performed live, and often had the musician weaving through classical and folk pieces, or published ‘mood music’ for specific scenes types; a jazz-fusion score composed by Italian soprano saxophonist Marco Castelli; and a hybrid of classical, electronic, pro-rock, and industrial by Goblin member Maurizio Guarini, commissioned for a live screening in 2017 as part of The International Seminar on Critical Approaches to Dante, as coordinated primarily between the University of Toronto and the Italian Institute of Culture.
This review of Inferno will be occasionally updated with assessments of the different scores, but the present version will reflect Guarini’s take. The bookend scenes at the cave feature a soothing, elliptical motif which at the film’s opening beckons Dante to accept Virgil’s request and take that privileged journey into a world where no human would voluntarily want to ‘visit.’ The blue tinting may represent night, but it also functions as a deceptively soothing element which starkly contrasts with the emerging red and shocking images encountered by an overwhelmed Dante. Guarini’s warm chords are nevertheless a little unnerving due to their constant revolutions, acting as the calm before a storm of shocking encounters.
The pair’s wait at the edge of a river is tinted turquoise, and the shift in colour also reflects the film’s first burst of violence – a boatman beating away scrawny naked souls – and nudity, which no doubt irked picky censors. Guarini’s use of pounding tympani emphasizes both the cruelty and the level of horror that await the pair, and some of the tragic personal stories told by poor doomed souls.
Agitated strings recur as the pair is surrounded by writhing naked bodies while rain pounds down from above, soiling the mass in cold wetness; and the pounding motif reappears when misers are forced to roll massive bags of money at the bottom of a gorge, like prisoners trapped on a galley, forced to move in tandem with a drummer’s disciplined hits.
A scene in which fireballs descend onto writhing bodies is scored with a mix of drums, male voices, arpeggiated notes, solo keyboard, and abstract sonics, and the cue ultimately leads to a pair of distinct industrial collages with sharp digital distortion, flanging notes, and mechanical percussion hammering the tormented souls onscreen, such as pairs of legs twitching above the ground, heads trapped in frozen water, crab-like creatures which approach and transform their victims into hybrids, deformed souls with backward-twisted heads, and figures missing arms, legs, eyes, noses, or carrying their own fully conscious heads.
Guarini’s palette weaves through industrial and experimental sounds on his keyboards and synth emulations, and on two occasions he evokes a bit of vintage Goblin, such as the cyclical glockenspiele pattern in Suspiria (1977), and the bass-heavy death pall and synth voices from Dawn of the Dead / Zombi (1978). More interesting is an extended piece for organ that traces a temporal vision of misery recalled by a trapped soul– a man’s suicide after his eyes are burned by a two-pronged poker – and highly electrified digital pulses that cascade in a revolving pattern and taunt Dante as he gets closer to Satan’s inner sanctum.
Although each chapter is supported by score, Guarini occasionally has material continuing into other scenes, making the score more of a canvas that sometimes ebbs and flows according to Dante’s psychological state and mood than direct screen action. None of the cues detract from the visuals and narrative, and one can argue they add extra cohesion for novices and those wholly unfamiliar to Dante’s epic poem of a man’s journey through Hell, and smoothening references to medieval politics and religious doctrine.
The music also adds dimension to the surreal imagery that permeates Inferno, including the sets which feature actors in clusters or spread out across the frame to emphasize Hell’s vast regions. Trick cinematography (some more than evocative of Georges Melies) includes clouds of spirits moving through a cave portal, the layers of the river and its bay, giants, and Satan munching on a cadaver while future victims are embedded in ice. (Although one can see the black body paint and cloaked torsos in an early cave scene, the lo-fi versions of disambiguated figures are nevertheless startling and clever.)
Whether influenced by the poem, this movie, or later cinematic interpretations, the impact of Dante’s tale is evident in later films, sometimes in unlikely and less classical works. The mass of souls in a cave recall the ‘spirits’ who ascend in a circular cloud before exploding in a round of Carousel in the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run (1976); and the souls trapped in the ground or ice up to their necks recall the famous head chopping wall in Caligula (1979) that mangles the victims trapped in sand. Brass also peppered his epic adult film with surreal imagery, such as deformed women with two hands sprouting from each arm.
The vivid set designs also establish a particular standard for vividly depictions of Hell and Purgatory, and the effect of horrifying audiences with nudity and gore undoubtedly sent a message to viewers to behave themselves or suffer horrific, unending torment. The eerie riverside, a grim castle, Satan’s frozen lair are remarkably detailed, as is a spiked subterranean valley with a kind of ‘natural’ bridge. Rain, wind, and fire torment the actors, but perhaps the riskiest sequence involved off-camera technicians tossing buckets of gasoline onto waning pockets of fire, igniting new bursts that are pretty close to the cast.
Like Dante’s tale, the film and score offer closure by bringing the pair back from Hell, returning to a blue-tinted upper surface. Guarini recaps his soothing, elliptical motif which plays under a gorgeous silhouette of the men as they exit the cave, and the filmmakers’ closing shot of a contemporary monument dedicated to Dante Alighieri.
For the 2017 Guarini performance, the restored version featured new English captions – bold minimal text in modern fonts with occasional English quotes from Dante’s text – whereas the Italian versions in the 2011 Italian Region 2 DVD (of which some portions are extracted on YouTube) seem more verbose. That disc also includes English subtitles, and a score by Edison Studio, a group comprised of composers Mauro Cardi, Luigi Ceccarelli, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, and Alessandro Cipriani, who’ve tackled a number of silent film classics.
(The Tangerine Dream-scored version is in B&W, but includes the original English intertitles, and was released in North America on DVD in 2004.)
Guarini’s score isn’t currently available on CD nor paired with the film on DVD or Blu-ray, but he discussed the possible release of his music and aspects of his score in the following podcast, available on iTunes, Google Play, Libsyn, and YouTube [to follow].
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review