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
Dante in Domenico di Michelino’s 15th-century portrayal 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 its spacey sound clusters and pulseless drones, is soporific at the best of times. At the film’s end, Dante and Virgil are confronted by the comico-grotesque figure of Lucifer half-protruding from a sea of ice. In his mouth he crunches the arch-traitors Brutus and Cassius (who betrayed Caesar) and Judas Iscariot. Afterwards Dante and Virgil shimmy down Lucifer’s ice-encrusted pelt from tuft to tuft before they creep through an opening in the rock and reach Purgatory. “The Poets leave Hell. And again behold the stars,” the caption explains. Screen Inferno: Dante and Virgil greet the punished lovers Paolo and Franchesca in the 1911 film version of the Inferno To date, no significant attempt has been made to film either Purgatorio or Paradiso from the Divine Comedy. To most 21st century readers, the Inferno is Dante, with the other two books seen as a distinct falling off from the first. Victor Hugo went so far as to claim that the human eye was not made to look at the light of Dante’s Paradise: “when the poem become happy, it becomes boring.” For Hugo, as for film makers today, the Inferno was the really “interesting” book where a recognisable human dram of guilty love, transgression and punishment is depicted. The siren call of damnation calls to us in a way that Dante’s emotional rescues and atonement clearly do not. In the US television series, Mad Men, the charmingly mendacious adulterer Don Draper is thus seen reading a copy of the Inferno while on a beach in Hawaii. The Inferno’s fusion of “high” and “low” art, pungent invective and celestial poetry, intrigued the British film director Peter Greenaway who, 80 years after the release of L’Inferno, collaborated with the Clapham-born artist and Dante translator Tom Phillips on a video dramatisation of the first eight cantos of the Inferno. Broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 in 1990, A TV Dante deployed state-of-the-art electronic media to recreate Dante’s underworld. The “dark wood” of the opening canto is a modern city at night, perhaps the urban jungle of New York, with police sirens just audible. A computerised leopard slouches across the screen, followed by a lion and a she-wolf; David Attenborough pops up to explain the reputation of wolves in medieval Europe. The mini-series gains much from the presence of John Gielgud as Virgil, who intones in the most grandiloquently sepulchral tones: “This is the city of Despair…You that enter here, abandon hope,” followed by a sound of despairing cries. How to reconfigure Dante’s great poem for an experimental short film? Stan Brakhage’s mesmeric The Dante Quartet, completed in 1987, flickers like a Jackson Pollock painting come to life. The product of six years’ work, the seven-minute film is a cinematic approximation of abstract expressionism, with swabs of blue, ruddy golds, reds and splashes of green pulsing and shifting on screen like a liquid stained-glass window from a medieval church. Brakhage, one of America’s most revered experimental film makers, said he wished to “recreate” Dante’s mind in a state of creative turmoil; the vividly-coloured paint, applied directly onto the film stock, creates an effect of swirling thoughts such that Dante emerges as a modern poet of interiority. The grim mausoleum night of the Inferno appears to have evaporated. “Hell must be beautiful,” Brakhage explained, “otherwise people would not spend so much time there.” Ian Thomson’s Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End is published by Head of Zeus.