• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, December 05, 2008

    Review: Dante's Inferno

    Like many of us, I enjoy watching films with friends, although I've never really understood why. Sitting next to someone in near silence, rarely, if ever, making eye contact is hardly a great way to enjoy their company. But it seemed vaguely appropriate for Dante's Inferno. After all, "Hell is other people".

    But some films are harder to sell to friends than others. When asked "what's it about?" I'm left splurting out something about cardboard cut outs and "The Divine Comedy", becoming rapidly less eloquent with every syllable. Thank goodness for blogging: a couple of hours to piece my thoughts together without having to think too much about the raised-eyebrow-o-meter.

    Dante's "Inferno" is the most well known part of his epic poem "The Divine Comedy". It's been hugely influential on our culture even though the majority of modern readers find his mediaeval worldview pretty horrific. So it's hard to know what motivated Sean Meredith and co. to adapt it into a movie. Do they find the idea of horrific, ironic punishment after death appealing, or even just likely. Or are they so appalled that elements of this worldview persist today that they want to expose it for what it is? Or do they just see it as a part of our cultural history which on grounds of longevity alone is worthy of celebration?There's very little in their modernised version of Inferno that really answers such questions. There's too much post-modern irony about for it to be the first, but even after watching the "making of" featurette, I'm none the wiser.

    Nevertheless I'm glad they did because Dante's Inferno is one of the most innovative and interesting films I've seen in a long time. The story is relocated in the twenty first century and acted out by two dimensional cardboard puppets. As you might expect, the puppets themselves are fairly simplistic - though certainly not lacking in artistry - but the creative and intricate way in which they operated is eye opening. Whilst the characters movements are fairly normal, the way in which the puppets' creators and operators use them to convey emotion is staggering. The otherness of the cardboard puppetry allows it a great deal of versatility, and once you've seen it, it's hard to imagine another medium which could capture the inherent bizarreness of all that the story entails.

    All of this required an enormous number of puppets and military precision in filming. The action really does all take place within the confines of the miniature theatre that we are taken into during the film's opening minutes. It's two or three foot off the floor to allow the puppeteers to move about underneath, but you'd never know from the expansive journey that Dante and Virgil undergo that this was indeed the case.The presence of Dante and Virgil underscores the manner in which the film has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Virgil remains firmly as the poet of the past, just as he was in Alighieri's day. But Dante is brought right up to date - a laconic noughties slacker whose cynical detachment from the horrors before him is almost as shocking as the torture that unfolds before him. The words are Dante's, but the delivery traces its ancestry back to Bogart's string of private detectives.

    Updating the work is a smart move. Contemporary resonances aside, it restores to the story the dynamic between past and present that Dante's original audience would have
    keenly understood. To moderns, both Dante and Virgil are just figures from the distance past. Bringing Dante and numerous points of reference up to date restores the essential tension at the heart of the original work. It also involves its audience more in the vision that unfolds.

    What is particularly clever is the way that so much of Hell's scenery is so like 21st century America. Virgil guides Dante through a world of inner city ghettos, run down theatres, takeaways, churches and post-industrial waste land. A smattering of older references remain. The pair still cross the river Styx, encounter other figures of antiquity and pass numerous clever background references, but mostly things are right into contemporary times.In particular, there are numerous references to modern politics. Condeleeza Rice appears in one of the opening scenes, Ronald Reagan fines himself in level 8, not for being a corrupt politician (that is reserved for Spiro Agnew) but for consulting an astrologer. Finally Dick Cheney appears frozen in ice in the innermost ninth circle of hell.

    At times modern references are even dressed up as ancient ones. Ulysees tells the story of the rise of the Greek Empire through the use of silhouettes. But it's unmistakably an allegory of America's actions in the Middle East.

    The friend who I ultimately managed to persuade to watch this with me found the considerable number of political references a little off putting. But then Alighieri's original work is full of them. And whilst it is certainly harsh to say that Cheney has been condemned to hell even whilst he is still alive, perhaps the same could be said of Alighieri's treatment of Archbishop Ruggieri. Thankfully, though, the friend still appreciated this film, even if punishment for the sin of lust, amongst others, was a little more graphic than we were both anticipating. But then any depiction of Dante's Inferno should be disturbing. The question is how it motivates us to repond.

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