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on 30 October 2009
A strange beast this one; apparently the first ever Italian feature film, based on Dante (with some unacknowledged visual indebtedness to Gustav Dore) L'inferno has lately resurfaced on DVD complete with a new soundtrack, and by Tangerine Dream no less. A great film, full of early fantastical touches, L'inferno still makes for reasonably enthralling viewing, especially as the shooting style of the time - slow moving tableaux, with no close ups - is eminently suited to Dante's epic narrative based around a grand tour of horror. Some of the many special effects are reminiscent of Melies' imagination (if far less studio-bound than the work of the French master), as Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, progress through the various circles of Hell, viewing increasingly horrendous torments on display. Silent film buffs will find a chance to acquire this version, a composite, taken from a couple of archives hard to miss. But the downside is the condition of the print: understandably a bit ragged given its age, surely it could still have been digitally restored and cleaned up more than this? The film is also presented conservatively in black and white, where most silent films, especially those of this importance, would have had a degree of tinting at the time, a process which would have considerably enhanced this work. There is also the music, which is sometimes a distraction, sometimes just a pleasant undercurrent, but which never rises to the required heights of inspiration. One is reminded of the old Giorgio Moroeder version of Lang's Metropolis which, with all faults, at least offered a viable and somewhat invigorated version of a great classic. By comparison the less thoughtfully done L'inferno to some extent represents a lost opportunity, but one still worth seeing, as it is probably the only version that will be available for some time. And one can always turn the sound down.
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on 7 July 2008
L'Inferno was the first full length Italian feature film ever made, and that alone means movie buffs should be interested in seeing it. If you also take into consideration some of the FX used, and the wildly imaginative visuals, then that ought to seal the deal - L'Inferno is an essential movie for anyones collection.

Made in 1911, L'Inferno is a film that sets out to depict the hell like never before, with every imaginable torture depicted in this loose translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. In what is essentially a seires of vignettes, we see robbers, blasphemous, murderers, and adulterers each suffering their own personal hells. Dante, led through hell by a poet as a way of reaching salvation, must witness this by way of learning.

The fantastic sights include Cerberus, the three-headed beast, demons with pitch forks, giant men, and Lucifer himself, chewing at the carcass of a sinner. The tortures are many including people swimming in molten pitch, men trapped in a hole in the ground having to feed of the heads of their victims, groups of people forced to walk around in huge lead coats, people buried head down to the knees, while the souls of their feet are burnt, and yet others turned into trees - where the breaking of a limb causes profuse bleeding, while huge birds sit among their branches forever pecking. You name it, hell has time to force it upon you for eternity.

The film has much of note, even putting aside the huge scope and brave subject matter. Three years in the making (a short version was released in 1911, with a longer version seeing the light of day in 1914), with a cast of more than 150 people, this was a blockbuster of its time - taking a reported $2 Million in the US alone - a huge amount of money at the time.

Yes, the FX are dated. However, this movie is a piece of theater that can be excused suffering from the techniques of its time. After all, how realistic is the original King Kong now? Yet we can still enjoy the drama, the action, and the heartache. L'Inferno is full of suffering, from the first minute until the 69th - one begins to hope Dante makes it in his quest, less he wind up one of the poor souls abandoned on the banks of rivers until Lucifer is ready to claim their spirits.

The DVD here is, to be fair, pretty good considering it's made up of two prints (one from the AFI, the other Bfi). The quality varies, and sadly a major restoration has not taken place. Compared to some of the magic we can enjoy on disc these days from the likes of Kino and Masters of Cinema, it doesn't really compare. But sometimes we ought to be grateful these things have even survived.

I've read various comments about the soundtrack, a contemporary piece by Tangerine Dream. Some enjoy the synthetic strings and operatic voice, others find it horribly misjudged - especially the female voice singing the verses of the source material. Despite being a fan of much of their work, having listened to this soundtrack again today I have to say I fall into the category of haters. In fact, this is the only silent movie I own that I prefer to watch silent.

Still, one of the beautiful things about silent cinema is that you can listen to your own music while watching them, whatever floats your boat. So while I don't like the new music (not even a little bit), I'll at least acknowledge it's an interesting experiment (gone wrong).

Silent cinema isn't for everyone, and this film won't convince the naysayers to become engaged in them. Even those who enjoy the horror classics such as Chaney's works and Barrymore's Jekyll and Hyde don't always decide to dip their toes out of the safe regions of acknowledged greats. Which is a pity, because the full range of human dramas, comedies, dramas and horrors were portrayed in silent cinema, and they deserve consideration. L'Inferno is a film full of amazing imagery, FX sequence after FX sequence, and a full array of masterful depictions of terror. Even if it takes a few viewings to reacquaint yourself with the theatrical drama of early film, it's truly worth it to take in the splendor and fantasy of films such as this.
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on 7 March 2009
Ok, when a film is widely available, I guess there's no harm of adding some crappy music ("Tangerine Dream") to the cinematic product of a bygone era, but since this version seems to be the only one on the market, more than 3 stars for this DVD would be too much...

Other than that, "L'inferno" is historically quite interesting, representing a specific stage in the development of Italian cinema but the restauration process seems a bit uncomplete, as if there's much more work to be done with digital restauration technology...
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