Old Ass Movies: Happy 100th Birthday, ‘L’Inferno’

Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.

This week’s Old Ass Movies celebrates the birthday of a movie that saw theaters for the first time a century ago. On March 10, 1911 (one hundred years and three days ago), L’Inferno played at the Teatro Mercandante in Naples, Italy. It was the first Italian feature-length film, it was a massive financial success, and it still exists for our viewing pleasure today.

The question is, can it be seen for pure enjoyment or solely as a curious historical artifact of a more primitive filmmaking time? Can an audience in 2011 love a movie from 1911?

L’Inferno (1911)

Directed by: Francesco Bertolini, Adolpho Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro

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

Production Design by: Francesco Bertolini

It’s a testament to mankind’s dedication to art that this film is available on a viewing format that was invented 84 years after it first premiered. That alone should speak to its enduring legacy and importance.

But legacies alone aren’t enough to invest an hour and a half of your life. Legacies are fine for museum placards and conversation pieces, but they can’t be seen on screen while the movie’s rolling. Legacy or not, the movie has to entertain on its own, and L’Inferno manages to reach back from a century ago to do just that.

It’s fortunate that we have the re-issue DVD, since it’s the only home version out there, but it’s unfortunate that the original score was replaced by one from the band Tangerine Dream. For one, the music does not at all go with the movie (which isn’t a slight against the band since they didn’t record the music specifically as a sound track). For two, their music is unbelievably annoying (which is a slight against the band because they most often sound like an old man fell asleep on a Moog keyboard). My solution was to turn the sound completely off. It was honestly the only way to make it through the movie, and that’s a shame, because the new soundtrack does a great disservice to a visually stunning flick. There’s just something jarring and inappropriate about listening to music made by computers against the backdrop of a film so old, and you can call me a purist, but there’s something wrong with lyrics being sung for a silent film score.

Sound aside, this movie is a celebration of production design and special effects. In fact, the visuals may be the only things that excite a modern audience. The scale of the project is epic. Director Giuseppe de Liguoro took the opportunity (and three years) to craft the first feature film his country had seen and made sure that it was gigantic. Everything is shot on craggy mountain ranges, deep rivers flowing through canyons, and outcroppings of forest and field.

The visuals also take center stage by virtue of the source material. Dante’s “Inferno” is largely flat exposition swallowing up grandiose descriptions of abject torture at the hands of eternity. People are buried in the ground up to their faces, bodies lie helpless against a rain of fire, demons whip hordes of sinners, giants stand strapped by chains to a mountain side, and Lucifer himself writhes in a frozen lake with the bodies of Cassius and Brutus shoved into his mouth.

These images are adapted without embellishment for the screen here, and the results are greatly successful. The bulk of the imagery is breathtaking – especially considering that these filmmakers were some of the first to be solving special effects problems. Super-imposing an enormous Lucifer onto a frozen lake of hundreds of bodies was no small task in 1911, and the image ends up looking fantastic. The same goes for most of the shots, although there are a handful of creative opportunities not taken. For example, the lake of filth looks like every other body of water, and the look of most of the sinners is more poetic than viscerally agonizing.

Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. The falling fire? The body-munching Lucifer? The creepy Cerberus puppet? All are very, very cool.

Do the special effects of today trump every second of screen time? Of course, but just as we can still appreciate classic architecture, we can absolutely appreciate the unique look of what’s been done here. It’s grotesque theater transferred to living film.

As pure entertainment, the visuals are often hypnotic, and when thinking too deeply about them, they seem to mirror the fog that floats throughout the entirety of Hell. Everything is done slowly, deliberately, and dream-like. Even as Virgil leads Dante further and further down with a clear path, the places they find themselves in appear ethereal and directionless.

The movie also features a few flashbacks that tell the short stories of the lives and deaths of several sinners down below. These vignettes offer a welcome break from the desolation of Hell by showcasing the desolation of life.

The acting here is difficult to judge because it’s mainly done by gesturing broadly. Technical limitations and a theatrical heritage show up here in big sweeping arm movements, but it makes sense in the context. Everything has to be exaggerated, and whereas some silent films struggle with that, the epic nature of the story, the fantasy element, and the design here actually make those overly emotional movements seem right at home in the slime.

It’s joyously appropriate that the first Italian movie would be from a famous Italian work of literature. There’s something sweetly fitting about that, and the film even ends with a shot of the statue of Dante which celebrates his importance as a literary figure as much as it celebrates the character of Dante rising up and leaving Hell. It’s also fitting that the very first Italian movie was the one responsible for ushering in their trend of featuring large groups of naked people in films.

It hasn’t aged perfectly, but there is still a lot of entertainment to be had from this early masterwork. From bleeding trees to souls swimming around in mid-air, L’Inferno is doing well at the ripe old age of 100.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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