“Heretics entombed in flaming graves!”, cites actor Paul McGann, translating from the orchestra pit an Italian intertitle. His steep voice billows throughout the Castro Theater, palatial home of San Francisco’s 2019 Silent Film Festival, as the great Matti Bye Ensemble intones stirrings of doom and dread.
I saw five films in this year’s festival. The most astonishing was L’Inferno. Italy’s first feature length film, it yanks us into a headlong dunk in the diabolical. Released in 1911, it was completed after three years and three directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Cineteca di Bologna restored the film in 2007, using fourteen remaining prints with intertitles in various languages. A third of its original length, it now provides 66 minutes of devilish perversion, enumerating Hell’s bolgias (a.k.a. ditches, funnels or chasms) with tortured theatrics and special effects.
An unprecedented ambitious production for its time, it boasts a simple concept: List earthly crimes and depict matching punishments with graphic horror, as described in Dante Alighieri‘s Divine Comedy, written six centuries earlier. Modes of damnation include humans morphing into upright reptiles, a man carrying his own head “like a swinging lantern”, women bathing in excrement, sinners lodged to their chins in a pond of ice, and simonious popes buried head first, feet sticking upright from the ground.
We gain entry (and escape) to this horrid landscape by following Dante and his protector, Virgil, as they inspect the fiery valleys with the detachment of anthropologists. The mood is comfortless, the display carnal, the scope of punishable deeds familiar. With somber pace, we trespass landscapes we would never wish to imagine, much less visit. It all creates an intriguing opportunity to dwell among pitchforks and take tally of our own souls.