Watch L’Inferno (1911), Italy’s First Feature Film and Perhaps the Finest Adaptation of Dante’s Classic

In its sec­ond decade, cin­e­ma strug­gled to evolve. 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. A quick rush. A bit of fun. Its cre­ators didn’t see much past the nov­el­ty of cin­e­ma but then oth­er film­mak­ers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S Porter, Alice Guy-Blaché and D.W. Grif­fith start­ed inject­ing this new medi­um with ele­ments of sto­ry. It start­ed aspir­ing towards art.

To this end, film­mak­ers start­ed to expand the can­vas on which they cre­at­ed. Films that were just two to eight min­utes length­ened in dura­tion as their sto­ries grew in com­plex­i­ty. The first fea­ture-length movie came in 1906 with the Aus­tralian movie The Sto­ry of the Kel­ly Gang.

In 1915, D.W. Grif­fith pre­miered his racist mas­ter­piece The Birth of a Nation, which crys­tal­lized film lan­guage and proved that longer movies could be finan­cial­ly suc­cess­ful. In between those two movies came L’Inferno (1911) – per­haps the finest cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of Dan­te’s Infer­no out there and the first fea­ture-length Ital­ian movie ever.


Like Grif­fith, the mak­ers of L’InfernoFrancesco Bertoli­ni, Adol­fo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro – sought to raise cin­e­ma to the ranks of lit­er­a­ture and the­ater. Unlike Grif­fith, they didn’t real­ly do much to for­ward the lan­guage of cin­e­ma. Through­out L’Inferno, the cam­era remains wide and locked down like the prosce­ni­um of a stage. Instead, 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. If you were ever tempt­ed by the sin of simo­ny, you’ll think twice after see­ing this film.

L’Inferno — now added to our col­lec­tion of 700 Free Movies Online — became both a crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial hit world­wide, rak­ing in over $2 mil­lion (rough­ly $48 mil­lion in today’s mon­ey) in the US alone. “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.

Amer­i­can film crit­ic for The Mov­ing Pic­ture World, W. Stephen Bush, was even more effu­sive:

“I know no high­er com­men­da­tion of the work than men­tion of the fact that the film-mak­ers have been exceed­ing­ly faith­ful to the words of the poet. They have fol­lowed, in let­ter and in spir­it, his con­cep­tions. They have sat like docile schol­ars at the feet of the mas­ter, con­sci­en­tious­ly and to the best of their abil­i­ty obey­ing every sug­ges­tion for his genius, know­ing no inspi­ra­tion, except such as came from the foun­tain­head. Great indeed has been their reward. They have made Dante intel­li­gi­ble to the mass­es. The immor­tal work, whose beau­ties until now were acces­si­ble only to a small band of schol­ars, has now after a sleep of more than six cen­turies become the prop­er­ty of mankind.”

Of course, the film’s com­bi­na­tion of ghoul­ish­ness and nudi­ty made it ripe to be co-opt­ed by shady pro­duc­ers who had less that lofty motives. Scenes from L’Inferno were cut into such exploita­tion flicks as Hell-O-Vision (1936) and Go Down, Death! (1944).

You can watch the full movie above. Be sure to watch to the end where Satan him­self can be seen devour­ing Bru­tus and Cas­sius.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

40 Great Film­mak­ers Go Old School, Shoot Short Films with 100 Year Old Cam­era

What David Lynch Can Do With a 100-Year-Old Cam­era and 52 Sec­onds of Film

A Trip to the Moon (and Five Oth­er Free Films) by Georges Méliès, the Father of Spe­cial Effects

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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  • Booma ( says:

    Thanks for mak­ing this avail­able. Is this the orig­i­nal cut of the film? Some of it is edit­ed out of order: the scenes with the blas­phe­mers and Gery­on, from rough­ly 26:36 through 27:33, should be moved to after the scene with the wood of sui­cides, rough­ly 33:54, to be con­sis­tent with the poem. I just won­der if the orig­i­nal had been edit­ed out of order or if a mis­take was made dur­ing restora­tion.

    In any case it is an amaz­ing film.

  • Mo says:

    I am watch­ing this ver­sion which was filmed with live music. It’s amaz­ing!

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