A TV Dante:
The Inferno: Cantos I-VIII (1989)
Synopsis & Analysis
Rather than dispensing with the actual text of The Inferno and depicting the actions its central characters, Dante (Bob Peck) and Virgil (John Gielgud), are described as performing, Greenaway instead provides the viewer with a recitation by his actors of an English translation of the first eight cantos of the poem. Even the visual elements that accompany their words do not portray the characters' activities. Instead, the director unfolds to the viewer a variety of evocative images, including visions of hell, the faces of his protagonists speaking their lines, superimposed designs, intertitles, and inset screens. The last of these are often windows which each contain the head of some academic or critic who is thus able to make comments on particular aspects of Dante's poem, his religion, or the world in which he lived. With his presentation of this complex universe of elegant words and gorgeous but horrific images, the director has fashioned a potent masterpiece that is not only remarkably beautiful but also profoundly disturbing.
What is more, by rejecting cinema's usual narrative conventions, Greenaway has provided the viewer with something far more daring and frequently more satisfying than are the stories related by most films. As he is never allowed to forget that he is watching a film, the viewer is able to involve himself immediately with the work of art with which he is being presented. He is able to experience the emotions its images and words evoke with a sort of directness that can, very often, leave him feeling genuinely shaken by the monstrous loveliness in which he finds himself immersed.
The director has greatly increased the potency of such sentiments of fear and disgust by changing the objects which elicit them from those that do so in Dante's poem. Instead of arousing horror by revealing the terrors and miseries of hell, Greenaway makes us feel revulsion for the men and ideas that created that vision. We are left aghast at the cruelty of those zealots and ideologies that have for millennia terrorized men, women, and children with threats of a vicious, spiteful deity intent upon causing unending pain to anyone who is unwilling to grovel before him or who fails to adhere to the rules he has set up for granting visas to his domain, even if their violation is simply dying so young that they have not had the chance to be baptized. The effect the director achieves with this approach is surprisingly effective.
Greenaway's inclusion of provocative images, of incisive observations, and of his actors' recitations of the translated words of Dante's poem all help to arouse in the viewer a profound emotional reaction. A TV Dante is, consequently, an amazing, innovative, and evocative film.
Review by Keith Allen
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