Italy’s first feature film

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I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!

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1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.

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If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.

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The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.

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L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.

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There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.

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It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.

My 2016 A to Z themes revealed

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Once upon a time, there was a crown prince. This wasn’t just any crown prince, but a very special crown prince who was born after four girls in a row. Because the inheritance laws of his empire dictated women could only inherit the throne unless all male dynasts were dead or disqualified, his parents had been trying and longing for a boy for almost ten years.

Their desperate prayers were finally answered when their only son was born, a very robust baby of 11.5 pounds who could already hold his head up. A further good omen was when he raised his hand and extended his fingers at his baptism, as though blessing the people. The entire empire rejoiced at his birth, after waiting so long for an heir to the throne.

But unbeknownst to anyone outside of the immediate family, the newborn crown prince was very sick. He was born with a fatal flaw in his blood, a sickness originating with his maternal great-grandmother and passed along to quite a few reigning houses. Because of this illness, the already disastrous reign of his parents headed into an even more troubling trajectory. Though the crown prince had many miraculous recoveries and showed promise of living at least until his twenties if he continued being lucky and careful, the Fates had other ideas, and he was murdered a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday.

But what if history had turned out differently?

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My A to Z posts will feature people, places, and things from my alternative history, And Aleksey Lived, a story about the greatest Tsar who never ruled, the hemophiliac prince who became a great hero against all odds. Because of the miraculous last-minute rescue which opens the book, there’s a much happier 20th century. My A to Z posts are dedicated in memory of Aleksey Nikolayevich Romanov (30 July/12 August 1904–17 July 1918).

You’ll learn about:

The Winter Palace, the beautiful, immense official home of the Imperial Family until 1905.

Aleksey’s loyal spaniel Joy, the only member of the Imperial Family who survived in real life.

Uzbek cuisine.

Why you want to use the word Tsesarevich, not Tsarevich.

Prince Vladimir Pavlovich Paley, a morganatic grandson of Tsar Aleksandr II and a very talented, sensitive young poet.

Nevskiy Prospekt, the beautiful, historic shopping thoroughfare of St. Petersburg.

How Easter was celebrated in Imperial Russia.

Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, Aleksey’s uncle, guardian, and Regent, who has a miraculous rescue of his own.

The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God, the House of Romanov’s patron ikon.

The Lower Dacha of Peterhof Palace, Aleksey’s birthplace.

Grand Duchess Xenia (Kseniya) Aleksandrovna, Aleksey’s aunt.

Several posts have two or three topics, but I kept each post between about 400–800 words, and loaded each with plenty of pictures. All the non-public domain photographs are properly credited.

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On my names blog, I’ll be featuring names from The Divine Comedy. Many of the names will thus be Italian, but there are also names from mythology and other regions. As some readers might remember, the opening 12 lines of this timeless work of literature were what inspired the title of my third Russian historical, and the titles of each of the four Parts:

Midway life’s journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
At thought of it strikes now into my breast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.
But, for the good it was my hap to find,
I speak of the other things that I saw there.
I cannot remember well in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind.

Underrated Treasures befitting my dinosaur tastes

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Ninja Captain Alex is hosting another of his legendary blogfests, this time giving participants the chance to extoll and expound upon the virtues of some of their underrated favorite things. Click the button to get the full list of participants.

I don’t watch much television, so I won’t be able to cover the fourth section.

Music:

I was turned onto The Small Faces by Senti of my estrogen Who lists back in the early Aughts. (Her real name isn’t Senti, but it was the nickname she went by since she was such a sentimentalist for all things Sixties.)  If you only know from U.S. oldies radio (which has become a joke in the last decade), you’d think The Small Faces had a one-hit wonder with the obscenely overplayed “Itchycoo Park.” Completely false!

Like The Who, they were from London, and like both The Who and The Hollies, they were always far more popular in their native Britain than across the pond. Unlike The Who and The Hollies, though, they only had two Top 100 singles in the U.S., making them even more of a hidden secret. They were active from 1965-68, and had another album released in 1969. They were singer and guitarist Steve Marriott (who sadly died in a house fire in 1991), bassist Ronnie Lane (who sadly died of MS in 1997), drummer Kenney Jones (who later joined The Who after Moonie passed on), and keyboardist Ian McLagan, who replaced Jimmy Winston in 1966. Ian later married Keith Moon’s ex-wife Kim, who sadly passed on in 2006.

They had so many great albums, but I’d recommend their 1968 masterpiece Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake to start out with. Unlike the most overrated album of all time, this is a concept album which actually has an original, consistent concept.

Film:

Instead of going with my usual inclination and recommending a silent film, I’m going to recommend the 1994 Russian film Burnt by the Sun (whose title literally translates as Wearied by the Sun). It’s set during one very eventful day in the Summer of 1936, in the thick of the Great Terror. Oleg Menshikov, one of Russia’s finest actors, plays Mitya, the former beau of the now-married Marusya Kotova. Marusya’s husband, Sergey Petrovich Kotov, is much older than she is, but they seem happy together, and they have a young daughter named Nadya.

Given the historical setting, you kind of know things aren’t going to be happy for long, but I won’t give away anything other than to say the ending is absolutely chilling. Please avoid the horrific sequel Burnt by the Sun 2, set during WWII. Not only does it have many historical inaccuracies, but there’s some serious, serious, serious retconning that completely contradicts everything that happened in the first film, as well as changing young Nadya into a full adult woman.

Literature:

Many people aren’t familiar with La Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri’s sweet, very personal, underrated 1295 work. It’s a collection of beautiful poetry and autobiographical prose, all about his unrequited love for the beautiful, unattainable Beatrice. Dante walks a very fine line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses that line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to step back and not tell Beatrice, a married woman, about his true feelings. (Dante was also married himself, though you’d never know it from any of his writings!)

Beatrice’s death devastates him, and he almost stops writing in his grief. Later, a beautiful woman visits and inspires him to start writing again, but Dante quickly feels very ashamed he took another woman as his muse, and vows to only write poetry for Beatrice forevermore. At the end, we see the germ of the idea which eventually became his beautiful masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. He wanted to immortalise Beatrice for all time in the best way he knew how.

Top Ten Tuesday—Awesome Classics

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Today makes 11 years since I first properly heard All Things Must Pass all the way through! It’s still one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none.

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Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Favorite Classic Books (however you define classic) or Top Ten Classics I Want To Read <or spin it some other way…”classics” in a specific genre?>.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. I just can’t give enough love to this book, which was finished somewhere between 1351 and 1353. (You can check out all my Decameron posts here.) It’s held up remarkably well over the centuries, with the vast majority of stories feeling as fresh, modern, and relevant as they did in the 14th century. I even know my two favouritest stories almost by heart.

2. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. This is another classic which has stood the test of the centuries. It’s such a timeless story of a man going on an amazing otherworldly journey to get back on track with his faith and life, all inspired by the great unrequited love of his life. (You can peruse my Dante posts here.) The opening stanza is one of the poems I know by heart.

3. La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this lovely, much-shorter autobiography and poetry collection. Dante’s love for Beatrice raises the question about the line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses the line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to conceal his true feelings as best he can. At the end of the book, we see the genesis of his idea for The Divine Comedy, his way of immortalizing this great love for all time.

4. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. I haven’t yet read the entirety of this book, but I’m really eager to find a good, full-length translation. It’s widely considered the world’s first novel, by a female author, and set during the Heian era of Japanese history. What’s not to love?

5. The Ramayana. This is one of India’s two great national epics; it’s a shame more Westerners aren’t as familiar with it as they are with Greco-Roman mythology. If I said something like, “I feel like Kaikeyi when her mind is confused by the gods,” I’m sure no one would understand what I were talking about. I’d also love to see a retelling from Sita’s POV.

6. The Mahabharata. This is India’s other great national epic, about ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, almost two million words. I got a condensed version of sorts when I read Devi Vanamali’s wonderful book The Play of God, and would love to find a good, complete translation. The sixth volume includes…

7. The Bhagavad GitaOn the eve of the major war between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their hundred wicked cousins the Kauravas (including their unknown older halfbrother), middle brother Arjuna gets cold feet. He wonders about how moral and ethical it is to have to kill good people, his own blood, all because of a petty feud that spun out of control. His charioteer Krishna, his best friend, delivers a sermon meant to lift his spirits and urge him to fight. At the height of this beautiful sermon, Krishna reveals his true identity as Vishnu, and delivers the famous line about how there are many paths to the same God.

Do NOT get the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. A better subtitle would be As It Is NOT!  This arrogant fool had the balls to say his was the only correct translation, and that everyone else hadn’t done it properly.

8. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. This book has meant so much to me since I first discovered it in January ’96, at age sixteen. Every time I read it, I come away with something new. I have the awesome Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation.

9. The Hemptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hoping it’s as awesome as The Decameron. This book was posthumously published in 1558, and consists of 72 stories. It was meant to contain 100 stories in 10 days, just as its inspiration The Decameron has, but only got as far as the second story of the eighth day.

10. The Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. This book is so freaking awesome. So many great books came out of the Enlightenment, and the best ones seamlessly combined a good story with promotion of Enlightenment values. I think my favourite part is when it talks about what a great magician Louis XIV is, but that there’s an even greater magician. “This magician is called the Pope.” Montesquieu used the supposed naïveté of the pretended real letter-writers to criticise French society and the Church.

Express Yourself—Great Opening Lines

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I just did a similar post on 30 July for Top Ten Tuesday, but I don’t mind revisiting it.

1. The Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.” One of the best, most memorable opening lines of all time.

2.  Fragments of Isabella, by the late Isabella Leitner, née Katz. “Yesterday, what happened yesterday?”

3.  Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon, by the late Ida Vos. “Rosa de Jong dreams during the daytime.” Though her books would be classified MG in today’s market, I’ve always loved her writing. It appeals to both adults and people of the intended age bracket, for different reasons. Her books are also among the most unforgettable I’ve ever read, able to recall so many details years later.

4.  Volume II of The GULAG Archipelago, “Rosy-fingered Eos, mentioned so often in Homer and called Aurora by the Romans, caressed, too, with those fingers the first early morning of the Archipelago.”

5.  The Divine Comedy!

Midway life’s journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
At thought of it strikes now into my breast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.
But, for the good it was my hap to find,
I speak of the other things that I saw there.
I cannot remember well in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind.

6.  The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio. “To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.”