From a silent classic to experimental shorts, there have been interesting efforts to capture the Divine Comedy on filmby Ian Thomson / August 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
Surprisingly, given its immense popularity, Dante’s Divine Comedy has rarely been filmed. But there have been some interesting efforts. In the early 1970s, the Florentine director Franco Zeffirelli asked Dustin Hoffman to star as Dante Alighieri in a short film of the Inferno, the poem’s first book. The film was never made owing to lack of funds but the sketches and set designs are displayed now in the Zeffirelli Centre, which opened in Florence in 2017.
Zeffirelli had been influenced by the 1911 silent movie L’Inferno. Directed by Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe de Liguoro and Adolfo Padovan of Milano Films, the film took over three years to make and in the US alone it made $2m—about $52m in today’s money. The film’s trio of Italian directors had relied heavily for inspiration on the 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré’s gloomy, neo-Gothic illustrations.
The film, a salmagundi of Gothic fantasia, mass writhing nudity and puffs of smoke (amid firecracker detonations), radiates a dark supra-reality. It contains scenes of such imagistic brilliance that one wonders why it has languished so long in cinematic purgatory as a precursor to the silent work of DW Griffith. For much of the time the camera remains static, but into the frame leap leathery-winged devils brandishing tridents as Dante’s guide Virgil attempts to fend them off. Beatrice, the Florentine poet’s muse and first love, hovers above ground in a supernatural, white-robed radiance.
At one point, Dante, immediately recognisable from his medieval coif hat and flowing robe, contemplates the spectacle of the Prophet Muhammad trailing his own entrails like onions on a string. Dante’s medieval text had condemned Muhammad to Hell not as the founder as Islam, but as a “sower of scandal and discord” who ruptured Christianity by preaching a nuova legge, or “new law.”
In another stark scene, a crowd of poor naked bodies fights to board Charon’s ferry in the hope of being taken to their particular place of torment. Like many of the damned in L’Inferno, they find a strange kind of fulfilment in embracing their condition. Charon clubs them back with an oar: they are too many. The sinners’ agonised physiognomies are hard to forget.
In 2004 the film was released on DVD with a disappointing soundtrack by the German electronic technicians Tangerine Dream; kosmische music, with…