The Italian film industry is far older than most people imagine. The first known Italian film was produced in 1896 and records the visit to Florence by King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy. The first full-length Italian feature film ever made was L’Inferno in 1911, running 68 minutes. It was also the world’s first blockbuster.
In this multi-part series, the Italian Tribune will look at the rich history of the Italian cinema. Films from Italy have their beginning only a few years after the invention of moving pictures. The credit for this invention has been disputed for many years and a number of people have laid claim to its development, but it was the Lumière Brothers who patented the process of cinématographe in 1895. The first films by the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Edison were short and gimmicky – shots of trains racing towards the screen, couples kissing and cute kittens getting fed. Those creators could not see past the novelty of cinema, but then other filmmakers began injecting the new medium with elements of a story. It started aspiring towards art.
Short reel films categorized the first Italian filmmaker efforts. The Italian film industry took shape between 1903 and 1908, led by three major organizations: Cines, based in Rome and the Turin-based companies Ambrosio Film and Itala Film. The year 1905 marked the release of Florentine Filoteo Alberini’s historical film, “La Presa di Roma, 20 Settembre 1870” (The Capture of Rome, September 20, 1870). It was the first true Italian commercial success. Soon, film companies sprang up beyond Rome and Turin, with Milan and Naples adding to rapidly growing national and international markets for the films. Prior to the First World War in 1914, Italy was at the forefront of screenwriting and movie production. These silent films were originally historical, mythological or documentary in nature, but by 1910, Italian filmmakers began producing art films and comedies.
Turin-based Giovanni Pastrone produced a film in 1910 called The Fall of Troy, which was a great commercial success. His next film was a two-and-a-half hour epic named Cabiria, written by Gabriele d’Annunzio and featured dramatic settings derived from the tradition of grand opera. Instead of using a fixed single camera, Pastrone used numerous cameras to film the same scene from different angles. This became the standard for film production worldwide. In addition, Pastrone utilized a dolly or moving camera; again a world’s first. Later, Italian filmmakers pioneered the use of the close-up shot to highlight the beauty of their female (and sometimes male) stars.
L’Inferno from 1911, was loosely an adaptation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and took over three years to make. The first Italian full-length film, it gave theater owners an excuse to raise ticket prices. First screened in Naples in the Teatro Mercadante on March 10, 1911, it became an international success, taking in more than $2 million in the United States (over $50 million in today’s money), at a price of seven cents per ticket! That is over 28 million tickets in the U.S. alone. At that time, the population of this country was 98 million, meaning that one in three Americans bought a ticket to the movie, making it the first true blockbuster in all of cinema. Today it is regarded by many scholars as the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s works.
The makers of L’Inferno, Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro, sought to raise cinema to the ranks of literature and theater. They focused their efforts on creating gloriously Baroque sets and costumes. Much of the film looks like it was pulled straight from Gustave Dorè’s famed illustrations of The Divine Comedy. Yet seeing a picture in a book of a demon is one thing; seeing it leap around lashing the naked backs of the damned is something else entirely.
“We have never seen anything more precious and fine than those pictures. Images of hell appear in all their greatness and power,” gushed famed Italian novelist and reporter Matilde Serao, when the film came out.
The film’s depictions of hell employed several special effects. As Dante’s Divine Comedy places Muhammad in hell, it follows the depictions of engravings of Dorè, L’Inferno, which included a scene that has a momentary depiction of Muhammad in its hell sequence. This would make L’Inferno one of the few films to include such a depiction.
The movie was remastered several years ago and is available digitally. Be sure to watch to the end, where Satan himself can be seen devouring Brutus and Cassius.