Wednesday, 24 April 2024

‘Dante: Inferno to Paradise’ a taste of culture on PBS


Ric Burns, the younger brother of noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (“The Civil War”), toils in the same genre with historical documentaries that have featured Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams.

To date, his masterpiece is likely the eight-part series “New York: A Documentary Film,” a chronicle of the city’s history from the time that it was first settled by the Dutch in the early 17th century.

While the first episodes were broadcast in November 1999, and the eighth episode in September 2003, there was apparently a plan for a ninth episode which has not yet come to fruition, and the PBS website yields no information.

Beginning this month, Ric Burns’ “DANTE: Inferno to Paradise” is a two-part, four-hour documentary chronicling the life, work and legacy of the great 14th century Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri, and his epic masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy.”

“Dante knew he was writing something very different and very special. And ‘The Divine Comedy’ is one of these books that are made every once-in-a-while in human history,” says Oxford scholar Elena Lombardi, in an interview for the film.

This two-part film makes Dante’s incomparable achievement come alive for a worldwide English-speaking audience, exploring his hypnotically beautiful 14,233-line poem, in which crucial issues of politics, power, corruption, sin, violence, virtue, beauty, humility and compassion mingle and converge.

PBS would have you know that this film addresses universal human questions at once “timeless and urgently relevant to our own time: questions of morality and truth, life and death, the love of family and children, the love of country, the belief in something larger than oneself, the love of God.”

The sweep of this epic, unprecedented film has been seven years in the making, utilizing an extraordinary group of scholars and actors from the United States, Italy, France, and Britain.

The actors likely unknown to us include Antonio Fazzini in the role of Dante, Fattori Fraser as Dante’s wife Beatrice, Dikran Tulaine as Virgil, and Alan Cox as Boccaccio. What is important is that this project was conceived by Italian scholar Riccardo Bruscagli along with Ric Burns.

The film undertakes a gripping odyssey into the depths of Dante’s turbulent life, the faction-torn times he lived in, and the great poem he left behind. Along the way, the film juxtaposes stunning cinematography from across Italy.

Most dazzling is the array of paintings, drawings, manuscripts, maps, and frescos, many filmed on location and in the original spots in Florence, the Vatican and elsewhere. This really whets the appetite for a vacation in the nation that is shaped like a boot.

Woven throughout, forming the film’s narrative and emotional core, are dramatic re-enactments filmed for the production in locations from Florence to Carrara and Ravenna and beyond, in scenes drawn from “The Divine Comedy” and the “Vita Nova,” the masterwork of Dante’s early career.

Part One of the film, “Inferno,” chronicles the historical background of medieval Florence from 1216 to Dante’s birth in 1265, and recounts the dramatic details of Dante’s childhood, education, and early political career, culminating in his exile in 1302.

Dante’s decision to begin “The Divine Comedy” in 1306, plunging thereafter, with Dante and his readers, into the underworld of the poem itself where, guided by the Roman poet, Virgil, Dante will meet a vast cohort of historical and mythological figures.

Guided through the Nine Circles of Hell, Dante eventually arrives at the center where Lucifer resides. After escaping Hell, Dante and Virgil will go to Purgatory and then Dante makes his way to Heaven.

You could skip the film and go straight to the 2010 video game, “Dante’s Inferno,” where Dante is imagined as a Templar knight from The Crusades and guided by the spirit of Virgil to fight through the nine circles to rescue his wife Beatrice from the clutches of Satan.

Part Two, “Resurrection,” explores Dante’s experience in exile, and his completion of the last two parts of “The Divine Comedy,” shortly before his death in Ravenna in 1321.

Interweaving scenes are drawn from Dante’s life in exile with passages pulled from Dante’s journey up the mountain of Purgatory and then up through the incandescent celestial spheres of paradise.

Part Two finishes with an account of the final years of Dante’s life, ending with his death in exile, and goes on to explore the literary and cultural afterlife and impact of Dante’s masterpiece from the time of his death down to the present.

A fair question is posed by Riccardo Bruscagli in the film, when he asks “Why should we care about Dante Alighieri?” Well, because “Dante addresses the core of our humanity. Dante had the ambition of embracing everything – of embracing the sense of us being humans on this planet.”

To satisfy your intellectual curiosity and thirst for culture while waiting for more pedestrian fare in the next action or comedy film, watching “Dante: Inferno to Paradise” on PBS just might be the ticket.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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