The Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco
celebrated the 700th anniversary of Dante's death with a free screening of a famous 1911 silent film, L'Inferno
at the Castro Theater.
This was the Institute's first live event since the pandemic began, and it was a pleasure hearing half the large audience chattering with each other in Italian, a language which sounds to me like everyone is singing.
A speaker from the Institute explained that we were seeing a newly restored print from Cineteca di Bologna of the first Italian feature film and the oldest silent feature that still exists. The title cards were in Italian so an onstage translator read them to us in Italian and quickly translated English in between the live music accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Quintet.
I recently read Dante's The Divine Comedy
for the first time, slowly, over the course of a year, and it proved to be as extraordinary as its reputation, especially in the Dorothy Sayers translation with its witty, informative notes. The first book in the trilogy is a journey by Dante and the Roman poet Virgil through Hell, which is pictured to be in the center of the earth. The second details a climbing expedition up Mount Purgatory, while the third zooms to the planets and outer space for Paradise. The mixture of allusions to classical mythology, Christian history, and contemporary events and personages is astonishing, combining all Western knowledge across time.
I have wanted to see this film since reading The City of Palaces, Michael Nava's magnificent 2014 novel set during the Mexican Revolution
. One of its major characters is a sensitive, artistic boy who sneaks into a a back room where they are projecting L'Inferno
which induces nightmares through the rest of his childhood.
The character is also disturbingly, erotically excited by the sight of hundreds of naked sinners, most of them wearing a thin loincloth over their genitals. In truth, I have never seen so much pubic hair in a film in my life.
The 70-minute movie is filled with wild special effects and the new print really is beautiful. If you'd like to check it out, click here for the full movie on YouTube
The musical accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Quintet (Javier Santiago, piano; Michele Walter, violin; Andy Lewis, percussion; Sheldon Brown, clarinet, and Sascha Jacobsen, bass, composer) was delightful, lively and adept at weaving in and out of the onstage narration. The only criticism is that it didn't match up in mood with the film, being a bit too jaunty while the images were unceasingly horrific until Dante and Virgil finally escaped Hell. "E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. (And thence we came forth to see, once again, the stars.)"