Cinema/Chicago News

Inferno 1911: Italy’s First Feature Film and Other Early Literary Interpretations

Published: September 30, 2022  |  Filed under: Festival News

Preceding the 58th Chicago International Film Festival, which begins on October 12th, Cinema/Chicago is hosting a CineConcert screening of L’Inferno to celebrate the centenary. The 1911 Italian silent film was directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro. More information about the screening can be found here

L’Inferno was the very first feature-length film produced in Italy at 68 minutes. The film interprets Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, a fourteenth-century epic poem by Dante Alighieri depicting the journey Dante takes through Hell, as he strays from righteousness and discovers sin. It is an incredible film, especially for its time, with stunning landscapes shot on mountaintops, impressive practical effects (notably those used to portray the divinely-touched characters), and truly inventive visuals, like the scene in which sinners are blown about by stormy gusts in Hell. It is magically theatrical. 

L’Inferno is one film among numerous in early Italian silent cinema which attempt to reimagine and reinterpret various texts, from Roman and Italian epic poetry to Shakespeare. These films include Nerone, o la caduta di Roma (Nero, or The Fall of Rome) directed by Luigi Maggi in 1909, Agrippina directed by Enrico Guazzoni in 1911, La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) directed by Giovanni Pastone and Luigi Romano Borgnetto in 1911, Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice) directed by Gerolamo Lo Savio in 1911, and several other Shakespearean works as well as the Odyssey. Though these original texts are varied in subject and eon, they are all texts which derive from oral and performed traditions.

King Lear by George Frederick Bensell

Shakespeare, being such a prolific playwright, is partially responsible for those performed traditions, but his work was most derivatively born from Greek play traditions. In ancient Greek tragedy, the intent was to portray narratives from Greek mythology or religion, recording grand historical moments that shape culture. Shakespeare followed this path, writing prolifically about both history and fantasy, frequently merging the two in tales like Macbeth and Hamlet. His tragedies are particularly concentrated on some historical moment and their social meaning. 

The other narratives reinterpreted during this era, including L’Inferno, are woven from oral traditions in epic poetry, which were made to recite mythology and history, preserving cultural practices and wisdom. Epic poetry was an intentional and accessible communication from one generation to another. In this vein, they were also intended to disseminate ideas about faith and morality, like the Divine Comedy, which is a narrative involving religion composed by an ardent Catholic. 

It is significant that these films all draw from oral and performative traditions; they are all preoccupied with the connection between spectacle and preservation, in how history might be understood through grand mythological enactments. They are also intertwined with the heroic tale, which typically involves self-discovery through that historic and mythic lens. These films were the first explorations in Italian cinema that dealt with violence and righteousness, politics and religion, morality and condemnation. They were the first forays into a storytelling that values morals or thematic journeys. 

This initial interest in morality becomes even more complicated by the era, just prior to World War I, in which Italy was both incorporating socialists into political life and developing its own colonial empire. In Inferno, Dante impresses his frustrations with those in power who abuse and exploit those they consider beneath them, his belief that wealth is corruptive. 

Similar themes can be found in King Lear or Julius Caesar, which trace the madness and corruptive nature of power. Nerone, o la caduta di Roma and La caduta di Troia both follow kingdoms collapsing. L’Inferno most aligns with its era, as Dante was incredibly concerned with class difference and the early nineteenth century in Italy saw decisive labor and social legislation. 

It is logical that in exploring such morality in storytelling, Italian cinema would return to the old and ancient texts; there is an inherent comfort in using the well-worn to try to understand and create something wholly new. It is also, in some manner, ambitious to tell such massive tales so early in the cinematic timeline, but it is clear that these textual interpretations were crucial in their moment in time. 

L’Inferno is an immense achievement in cinema. Cinema/Chicago is thrilled to be presenting a CineConcert of this film at the Music Box Theater in tandem with the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago. This screening is free and open to the public and includes live performances by Stefano Maccagno (piano) and Furio Di Castri (double bass). You can claim your tickets and find out more about this special event here

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