My life is ruled by synchronicity. I get a chance to watch a movie, closely followed by another movie that has some loose connection, and I realize that another movie I was planning to watch has a similar enough connection to warrant further examination. This either speaks to 1) Incredible luck (in an area which does me no good whatsoever); 2) Possible mental derangement on my part; 3) The fact that there are only so many ideas floating around in the ether; 4) All of the above.
What kicked off this mad train of cinematic thought was the 1911 film L’Inferno, based on the Hell sections of The Divine Comedy by the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri – possibly based more significantly on the famous Gustav Doré illustrations of same. I admit I haven’t read The Inferno since college, but the movie seems a pretty fair approximation of the high points, with Dante lost in the woods, then taken on a guided tour of the Nine Circles of Hell, and the celebrities within (which included some of Dante’s enemies – my professor took special delight in pointing those out).
There’s some laudable special effects employed for the more fantastic scenes involving the damned and the various princes and monsters of Hell, admittedly many of which Georges Méliès had been doing for years at that point. 1902’s Trip to the Moon is only 13 effects-packed minutes long, and L’Inferno is three times that length, and uses every one of those trick to realize its spectacle.
Dante gets to interview a couple of the imprisoned souls about how they wound up in that particular circle, leading to vignettes illustrating their tales of woe. The major setback to the modern eye can be leveled at practically any motion picture of that era: it is essentially stagebound, every shot is wide, the camera nailed down. This is perfect for the spectacle being paraded before us, but this may require more than a bit of patience from a viewer waiting for a close-up (there is one… sort of… as the camera gets a bit closer to the gigantic Lucifer).
L’Inferno deserves respect not just for its ambition, but for being the first full-length movie produced in Italy (The Australians apparently beat them to the punch for the first in 1906 – but in Italy’s defense, it reportedly took three years to shoot this). That they succeeded in their ambition with the grand scale of spectacle on display is admirable. You might look at me a bit askance for mentioning patience earlier, when the running time is listed at a mere 68 minutes, but that running time was considered almost unthinkable at the time – longer films were traditionally broken down for serialized viewing, and this seemingly lengthy epic certainly lead to higher ticket prices. A contemporary account of a viewing mentions two intermissions to help the audience get through it. You have to wonder what that diarist would have thought of Birth of a Nation’s runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes, only four years later.
YouTube has the beautiful restoration that I saw, though unfortunately not with English intertitles. Maybe you can read Italian, or maybe you also read The Inferno in college and can muddle along. Or maybe the words are mostly superfluous and we are here to see pretty pictures:
Then, oddly, the next movie to fall into my sphere was also silent and Italian and involved the Other Place: Maciste in Hell. Now, like most Americans, I had been kept largely ignorant of Maciste. The character had been introduced in 1914’s Cabiria (yes, silent and Italian), which was one of those movies I had always intended to watch back when I could afford Netflix Instant, yet never did. Maciste is likely the longest running recurring character in cinema, appearing in over fifty movies, over half of which are silent, and starring muscular actor Bartolomeo Pagnano. The other half were shot in the peplum boom of the early 60s, but those imported to American shores were re-named with the more familiar Hercules (or his Son), Samson (or his son), Atlas or even Goliath. My mother was addicted to watching the damned things on the afternoon movie slot in the late 60s, and I was really confused when the occasional reference to Maciste slipped through.
The silent Maciste movies seem to cover a lot of time periods – In Hell seems to take place in the 19th century, and it was a little bewildering to see the muscle man in a nice suit. Barbariccia (Franz Sala), a Lieutenant of Hell, comes to Earth with a few of his cohorts to spread corruption, but Barbariccia’s main target seems to be the virtuous Maciste (Pagnano). Changing from his demonic form to a more traditionally evil cape, top hat and elegant moustachio, the Lieutenant first tempts Maciste in person, then steals away the baby of Maciste’s neighbor Graziella (Pauline Polaire) moving her to blaspheme and become his rightful prey, and she is saved only by a traveling holy man.
The neighbor bit is part of a major subplot where we get to see our hero be a proactive muscle man, as that baby is also the child of a local prince (Dominico Serra, I think), born out of wedlock. Maciste visits the palace, womps up on some powdered wig-wearing footmen, and talks some sense into the young prince, who sees the error of his ways, and promises to wed Graziella. On his way back home, Maciste discovers the kidnapped baby abandoned in the woods, and rescues it; afterwards, he confronts Barbariccia, and the devil carries him down to Hell.
After the expected scenes of Maciste taking on the hordes of Hell – the scene where he grabs a demon by the tail and proceeds to swing it around like a wrecking ball is especially sweet – Maciste is ushered into the throne room of Pluto (Umberto Guarracino), King of Hell.
This gets almost as confusing as Maciste in semi-modern dress: as contemporary posters claim, this is “Based on Dante’s Inferno”, and to be sure, there’s the giant Lucifer, presiding over the icy expanse of the Ninth Circle, Caiaphas is still crucified to the ground (though no longer trodden underfoot by hypocrites wearing heavy cloaks of lead), and quite a few torments of the damned are familiar if you’d just watched the 1911 version. But we’re still mixing in some questionable Greek mythology. Proserpina (or as we know her, Persephone) (Elena Sangro) is identified as “Pluto’s second wife” though I don’t recall any others, and Pluto even has a daughter, Lucerfina (Lucia Zanussi). Prosperpina has her sights set on Maciste, and so does Lucerfina, though in her case it’s because Maciste thinks nothing of tossing demons over cliffs and rescuing the tormented, which she finds utterly refreshing.
According to “the latest rules of Hell”, no living man can stay in Hell more than three days unless he is kissed by a she-demon, and though Lucerfina tries to warn him of this, our musclehead kisses Proserpina, which turns him into a demon. That doesn’t seem to bother him too much, as he settles down to non-stop offscreen debauchery with her, until the jealous Barbariccia leads an army of revolt against Pluto. Maciste, who is now even stronger because he’s a demon, routs the revolution single-handedly, and in gratitude, Pluto turns him back into a human and releases him back to the real world. Proserpina, however, double-crosses him and has him chained to a rock, returned to his demon form, forever her sex toy.
But! On Christmas Eve, the baby Maciste saved, now a toddler, prays for him, and it’s apparently one of those “latest rules of Hell” that such an act can save a cursed soul, and Maciste is released, The end.
The biggest contrast between Maciste in Hell and L’Inferno will be that the visual language of cinema has been largely developed, and movies in 1925 no longer resembled filmed stage plays – in fact there’s been a case made for Italian director Giovanni Pastrone, who made the aforementioned Cabiria, inventing some of the innovations generally credited to D.W. Griffith, most notably the tracking shot. Guido Brignone directed in Hell and several other Maciste movies, and was directing films right up until his death in ’59. And Maciste in Hell is a really good movie with a cracking pace and some impressive spectacle – especially a shot of a flock of devils circling the infernal skies straight out of Doré, and some effective dissolves done with time-reversed smoke and fire.
The original running time of Maciste in Hell is given as 95 minutes or so, though the version i watched was only 65, which may explain that cracking pace, but I didn’t sense any break in the story. Given how many silents have completely vanished, we should be happy that we still have this essentially (somewhat) complete version. If you’re a fan of early cinema or silents, or even a little curious, Maciste in Hell makes for a fun watch.
Now, this little post has been kicking around for a while, getting longer and longer, even when work and personal pressures kept me from physically typing it out. The breaking point was when I realized I needed to see yet a fourth movie for this line of inquiry, and it was while I was tracking down a copy of that movie that I realized that this beast could actually be presented in two parts, and finally get something up in this dang blog.
So see you soon, I hope. Before I realize a fifth movie is needed.
(I’m a little jealous. My version of the movie is 10 minutes longer somehow, but the picture quality on this one is superb.)