johnlink ranks L’INFERNO (DANTE’S INFERNO) (1911)

I didn’t start the month planning on discovering obscure silent era films based on literary masterpieces, but between this and the previously considered 1915 ALICE IN WONDERLAND… well… here we are.

L'Inferno - 1911 - River of Filth - Flatterers

I watched L’INFERNO (DANTE’S INFERNO) (1911) on 4.23.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

This 1911 Italian telling of Dante’s Inferno is said to be the first feature length movie shown in the United States (It made over $2 million in the US). One would think it must be exceedingly dull-witted due to its early release date, yet an opening special effect showing a man being pulled out of frame sets an early standard for innovation.

The grainy print I found on You Tube had a soaring, ethereal soundtrack which did the movie well. This is a film which shoots wide and doesn’t linger over-long on its subjects, a sophistication not necessarily common to its time. Some features of the 1910’s seem to hold its shots long enough to ensure feature length, this telling of the Inferno only does so when the frame is filled with a dense mise en scene and an abundance of action. It is as if every scenario shot within the film is carefully considered. There may be a lack of cohesiveness, but the ideas stand prominently. The scope of this film is vast even as it predates the most famous works of DW Grffith.

Ultimately, this serves as a visual cliff notes of Dante’s epic poem. The filmmakers read the novel and tried to match images to the words. In this capacity, it is successful. However, the dense subject matter of the source material is not fully realized by the jumping limitations of this telling.


Which isn’t to say that some sequences aren’t haunting or effective. The winds of hell come as a complete visual surprise. Souls float in the air in a magical way as Dante looks on from the bottom of frame left (in general, this is a film which effectively uses the full frame from multiple depths). Further, this Italian film does not shy away from the naked body, even if the rest of the film world would be half a century behind in this thought. The spendthrifts provide an absolutely compelling bit of storytelling, as are those bathing themselves in the River of Filth, even as there is NOTHING sexual about the nudity there. Similarly, the moments with the giants must have seemed startlingly real and effective in 1911, as they still hold up over a century later. A late scene flashback at first seems to derail the narrative before the viewer might realize that such a belief would be a contemporary viewpoint of the nature of storytelling, and that the actual flashback here serves an emotional purpose. Or, perhaps, it would be absolutely valid to judge the film by contemporary standards of narrative.

Some other bits, like the Cerberus, are unsatisfying. The brief sequence seems embarrassed to be part of what comes before and after. The editors do not linger here.The pits of fire, by comparison, drag on for several moments too many. While this does not derail the film, it certainly stands out as a bit which does not hold up.  Likewise, the Summonists come off silly, with their feet swinging in the air for far too long (though this scene is punctuated with a nice bit of Dante being floated away by Virgil). Lastly, alas, the final deep images of Lucifer don’t uphold the promise of the rest of the film which preceded it.


But here I am, picking nits. This is an historical artifact more than anything. It is entertaining and fascinating enough of an hour to hold your attention should the historical significance of the film, or the technical achievement of the film for its time, not provide a satisfactory enough reason to hunt it down. If someone knows about a clean print of this film, send it my way. I’d love to see it as it was intended to be seen.

Oh… Spoiler Alert (if 103 years to see the movie and 700 some-odd years to read the poem haven’t given you sufficient time) Dante gets out at the end. I mean… how else would he have written all of this?



Look… this is the first major feature length narrative Italian film on record. Sometimes you just have to give a movie a bonus point for innovation.


FINAL SCORE: 6.75 out of 10


~ by johnlink00 on April 23, 2014.

2 Responses to “johnlink ranks L’INFERNO (DANTE’S INFERNO) (1911)”

  1. Nice review. Cheers for including the youtube link as well. Will try and check this one out.

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