Thursday, May 28, 2009

dante's inferno [2007]

i caught the first 20 minutes of this flick some weeks ago and finally got to watch it in its entirety last night. the title makes the flick sound like either a bad action movie or a horrible porno film from the 1970s. rather it is an updated retelling of the italian poet dante alighieri's journey thru hell in the form of a paper puppet show. sounds goofy indeed yet the poet, voiced by dermot mulroney, is a laid-back slacker with quite a lot of charisma. the puppetry is quite simply spell-binding. hell is the united states during the bush-era and the usual roster of deviltry is represented in the nine circles including dick cheney whose soul in the living world is occupied by a demon [which is something most of us probably already suspected].

dante, as we know, wakes up in the middle of his life to a journey toward illumination. his guide is that most sane of roman poets, virgil, voiced by james cromwell. dante is so laid-back that his character reminded me a bit of jim rockford, played by james garner, from the 1970s tv crime drama the rockford files, which is a mixture of humor, resignation and some action. i recall the scenes when rockford would return home to his trailer by the sea and some thugs would be waiting for him to kick the p.i.'s ass. rockford would just shrug and sigh, ah man. the same goes for mulroney's dante as he gets himself into some serious jams as virgil gives the younger poet quite a visual and visceral tour of the netherworld. yet, when virgil tantalizes dante with a few glimpses of his guide for heaven, beatrice, the poet becomes all gaga and starry-eyed. nice touch by the filmmaker.

hell is a place we all recognize. there's even an airport where the sinners are beaten mercilessly by airport security. one poor soul is taken aside, placed in a room and when the door shuts the screams of horror and pain hit me like a two-by-four across the bridge of the nose. luckily, scenes of such visceral horror are few. the filmmaker is heavy-handed when portraying contemporary sinners such as lobbyists and insider traders who are forced to spend eternity bartering their inner organs. the messages are without irony and clumsily drawn. the direction of the film is rather flat in spots and the filmmaker takes a kind of care into showing the production of making the movie, such as the occasional hand controlling the puppets that the viewer need not forget that this is a post-modern telling of the poem.

at any rate, the movie is quite a feast. if the punishment of the sinners are drawn in crayon then so was dante's original vehicle of social and metaphysical commentary too. i liked the slacker language of the movie which captions just enough snippets of the poem to illustrate the literary qualities of the source text. most of the time when you call something 'literary' it is meant as a pejorative. not in this case for the film as a puppet show illustrates the literariness of the source text. watching the puppets is kind of like reading the text. if the film were pure animation or live action the filmmaker i think would find the story of a poet, and i emphasize poet because we are not to forget that dante and virgil are both poets -- there's even references to dante's books and his being a sell-out, visiting hell turned into an action movie. the puppets ground the source text into film and allows the language to become visual representations of the action of the poem.

should a movie be judged based solely on how often it runs thru the mind after viewing it then this movie succeeds. if i found that the direction at times a bit stilted that didn't prevent me from enjoying the whole spectacle. this is an inspired work of cinema. it makes me want to immerse myself in the poem again. perhaps i like this film so much because it is a bit of self-identification as i am about the same age that dante was when he set out on his journey. and i can identify even further with mulroney's slacker poet. whatever the cause of my pleasure watching this flick i find myself, unlike dante, still trying to wake.


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