Sometimes, a complicated project requires an innovative approach. Unusual material frequently mandates an equally atypical take. A while back, the art of stop motion animation was used to bring the story of Charles Manson and his Freaky Deaky Helter Skelter philosophies to darkly comic life, while Steven Spielberg once contemplated turning the musical Cats into a traditional 2D animated adventure. In the case of Dante Alighieri's classic literary treasure The Divine Comedy, many have taken on the epic poem's first cantica, "Inferno". But few have found a way to make it come alive for a contemporary audience like Sean Meredith and his creative collaborators Sandow Birk and Paul Zaloom. Using live action puppetry and post-modern artistic renderings, they have refashioned Aligheri's trip through Hell into a stunning social commentary. The results - both visually and ideologically - are simply dazzling.
After waking up in the gutter, semiconscious and unable to remember what happened, hooded slacker Dante Alighieri soon learns that he's landed an exclusive journey into the afterlife. No, he's not dead, at least that's what his spirit guide, the Roman poet Virgil says. Instead, Dante is being given a chance to experience the different layers of Hell in order to chronicle their own individual means of eternal damnation. As they move from section to section, discovering the horrors and harbingers within, our heroes soon realize the truth about the underworld. What you were in the real world, you are in death - except hundreds of times worse. And when you finally have to face your everlasting punishment, the type of torture always fits the crime. Always.
You have literally never seen anything like Dante's Inferno. While puppetry is an old world artform, you've never seen it rendered in such rich, reactive ways as how Sean Meredith envisions this version of the Alighieri classic. Working within the grim and grit of the modern metropolis, and utilizing the excellent voice acting talents of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell, this trip through the infamous nine rings (and the various sins and sinners within) comes across as a combination of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartooning and an animated anthology from Gahan Wilson. There is a true gallows humor within this material, as well as some obvious jibes at a certain sitting President. Yet what's most shocking about Dante's Inferno, especially for those of us who actually studied the actual poem, is how closely it mirrors the author's intent. Aligheri wasn't really interested in showing off his own interpretation of the afterlife. Instead, he used the set up as a means of social commentary, undermining the Italian power structure via a creative means of criticism.
Sure, the target area this time is a little broader. Our protagonist is viewed as a directionless drone, happy just to drink and drift along on his empty life path. This trip into Hell and all its levels is meant as a wake-up call and a bit of worldly wisdom. His pseudo sage guide, taking the form of famed poet Virgil, is also a troublesome soul. Relegated to getting the message out regarding what awaits those headed for the underworld, our ancient mariner manages to offer less insights than one expects. Indeed, Meredith and his cohorts aren't out to address the big picture issues inherent in the text. This is not a tale of religion or faith, God, the Devil or any of their disciples. Instead, we are to see ourselves in every hideous facet of Hades - the greedy bastards, the slothful jokers, the instant gratification gluttons, and the "love it or leave it" jingoists. Some may be bothered by the clear political bias, especially when it occasionally sounds so cold and calculated. But in general, the movie is much more entertaining than preachy.
Because of the beautiful way it is rendered, and the inventive mannerisms employed to suggest movement and reaction, we accept all of Dante's Inferno - the screeds, the sonnets, and the simpler messages. Sure, the Political Drag of a high kicking Congress leads to lobbyists wearing prison stripes, but anyone channeling Tom Lehrer by way of School House Rock deserves our outright appreciation. Indeed, much of Dante's Inferno plays like a PBS special come unglued, clear parallels to our own uneven times translated into colorful cutouts and old fashioned marionette magic. The allure of the artform meshes flawlessly with the narrative to give us the unique opportunity of seeing literature literally come to life. With regular actors and a setting crafted out of plastic and surreal CGI, we'd get lost in the F/X fantasy. But thanks to Meredith's decision to go 2D, as well as the true topicality of Aligheri's work, we get something surprisingly prophetic. Without the 13th century backstory, Dante's Inferno feels like a contemporary cautionary tale. It's also a sign of the talent involved in this fabulous film.
Offered by Ricochet Releasing in a marvelous 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Dante's Inferno looks excellent on DVD. The colors are clean and crisp, and the level of detail stands as a solid selling point. It's also important to point out the direction. This isn't just some restaging of a performance piece. Meredith makes this into a full blown film experience. The attention to big screen issues like framing and composition argue for a major visual talent.
Utilizing the back channels to create mood and ambient atmosphere (moaning souls lost in Hell, for example), the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix here is terribly effective. Dialogue is easily discernible, and the intriguing score by Mark McAdam is evocative and dense. Overall, the technical aspects of this release are just super. They do a wonderful job of complementing the main feature.
With two full length commentaries and a behind the scene featurette, Dante's Inferno gets quite the format fix. The Making-of material is the most interesting, since it offers a hands-on view of how these often intricate puppet tricks were accomplished. Sure, the first discussion from Meredith, Birk, and Zaloom offers lots of anecdotal evidence of the production's trials and tribulations, but actually seeing how it was done helps us understand what a huge undertaking it was. Similarly, a second alternative narrative featuring scholars John Bell and Peter Hawkins (puppetry and Aligheri, respectively) is intriguing if a little dry. Historical context may help us uncover the purpose of Inferno's prose, but in the end, watching as carefully constructed figures are moved meticulously across a complicated backdrop is a much more valuable digital experience.
Deserving the DVD Talk Collector's Series tag for what it represents artistically, Dante's Inferno will have to settle for a Highly Recommended rating for one simple reason - no matter how sensationally realized, there will be some who see this minor masterpiece and still remain unmoved. Of course, it's their fault for not falling under the spell of this mesmerizing gem. From a strict cinematic standpoint, Meredith and company create an unforgettable experience. It's the kind of solid diversion that will have you free associating on specific symbols and sequences for days afterward. On the other hand, one doesn't typically associate great art with hand drawn dioramas and stick figures. Skeptics will probably acknowledge the effort involved and remain unimpressed. But make no mistake about it - Dante's Inferno is one of the best DVDs of the year. If you give it a chance, you'll be richly rewarded...and then some.