«The only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people…»
The epic dimension of a film is almost always recognisable from the very beginning, the moment it conveys that sense of power that can transcend reality. Ben Hur, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars teach us this. Without disturbing these sacred monsters, it is however undeniable that the majestic opening sequence of Inferno puts us in front of a sort of horror colossal, at least in its intentions. This is why the film could only be called «Inferno», the place of horror par excellence. Moreover, the mysterious passage read during the opening sequence reminds us of Dante’s Inferno rather than the beginning of a fairy tale.
The story is rather fragmented and it is difficult to establish a clear narrative line. To sum up, we can say that in New York the young girl of high hopes Rose Elliott buys from an antique dealer named Kazanian a book entitled «The Three Mothers», written by alchemist and architect Emilio Varelli. When she reads it, she realises that she lives in the home of one of the three ‘mothers’, Mater Tenebrarum, and this discovery will seal her fate. Before dying, however, she managed to contact her brother Mark, who was studying musicology in Rome. The latter, after unintentionally involving his friend Sara – then brutally murdered – in the matter, returns to New York, to the old building where his sister lived, and investigates her disappearance. In the end, he finds himself face to face with Varelli himself and fortunately manages to escape from the terrible Mater Tenebrarum.
Unlike «Suspiria», Dario Argento’s previous film, «Inferno», is not a fairy tale, although the brother-sister couple, Mark and Rose, might have made one think again of Hänsel and Gretel. Even if there is no real narrative continuity between the two pieces, it is nevertheless true that «Inferno» is a sequel, since it deepens into suggestions and themes present in the previous film, in a wider conceptual vision. For example, we can now really understand why «Suspiria» was named like that. The reason for this can be found in the book «Suspiria De Profundis», by 19th-century writer Thomas de Quincey, who was famous for «Confessions of an English Opium Eater», to be precise. In the last chapter of the book, the author presents, in the form of a dream, the encounter with Mater Lacrimarum [Mother of Tears, ed], Mater Tenebrarum [Mother of Darkness, ed] and Mater Suspiriorum [Mother of Sighs, ed]. In short, three ‘mothers’ who represent as many declinations of Death. A terrible female triad, which echoes those that Greek mythology and others are full of: from the Parcae, to the Furiae, to the Gorgons. It is right to think that our dear de Quincey took his cue from some previous source, starting from Plutarch‘s «Parallel Lives», in which the ‘mothers’ appear for the first time, and arriving at Goethe‘s «Faust – Part II», where the protagonist descends into the Underworld precisely to face the ‘mothers’, or rather, to secretly take possession of the ‘images’ of Helen and Paris. Trying not to get lost in this flood of references, we can first of all state that Dario Argento, basing himself on this literary material, deepened the matter and made some very personal changes, for example locating the three ‘mothers’ in the cities of Freiburg, Rome and New York. And this is exactly how we discover that Mater Suspiriorum coincides with the Elena Markos mentioned in «Suspiria».
Let’s face it, «Inferno» is a great film, but not a masterpiece. While Romano Albani’s cinematography gives continuity to Luciano Tovoli’s extraordinary work in «Suspiria», other aspects do not reach the heights of the previous film: some sequences are extraordinary, such as the famous appearance of Mater Lacrimarum during the university lecture, but others are not very effective. For example, Kazanian’s murder in Central Park has the same function as that of the blind pianist in «Suspiria», but fails to convey the same fear and expressive power. In general, a certain disorganisation is perceived, with different characters alternating without imposing themselves as protagonists: if on the one hand this choice is functional to the spectator’s immersion in a real circle of hell, without references, where Death is the protagonist, on the other hand it creates a certain dispersion. Finally, even the cast works only in part: Irene Miracle as Rose is convincing, as is Sacha Pitoëff as Kazanian and Veronica Lazar as Mater Tenebrarum, while the talented Eleonora Giorgi as Sara does not seem quite in the role, and like her, Mark, the male lead, played by Leigh McCloskey, does not shine. On the other hand, the performances, albeit in minor roles, of Alida Valli, Gabriele Lavia and Daria Nicolodi – at the time the director’s partner and assistant – were excellent.
The music deserves a separate chapter. Dario Argento’s ambitious project is also based on Keith Emerson’s imaginative soundtrack, very different from the essential one of «Suspiria». Despite the commitment of the great English musician, in which one can recognise quotations from Listz, Orff, Prokofiev and Musorgsky, in general there seems to be too many iron in the fire. The inclusion of «Va Pensiero» is instead extraordinary, an element that introduces the ‘historical’ dimension of the film, already hinted at by the setting: no longer Freiburg, in the fairy tale of the Black Forest, but Rome and New York, the capitals of the ancient and modern world.
The historical and philosophical dimension of Evil
Evil perpetuates itself in history, hidden and unknowable, but at the same time it becomes evident in its ruthless manifestations. So what has our Giuseppe Verdi to do with it? Well, beyond the more or less revisionist interpretations of the Risorgimento, it is undeniable that the said historical period was characterised by frightening physical and ideological violence, too often forgotten. Hence the shocking use of the glorious «Va Pensiero» in a context of atrocity.
In addition to the ‘historical’ dimension, «Va Pensiero» also opens the door to the ‘philosophical’ question of Evil. And it does so not through its metaphorical meaning, linked to the Risorgimento, but through its literal one, that is, referring to the Jews enslaved in Babylon. In fact, most likely it was during the Babylonian captivity that the esoteric Jewish teachings known as Kabbalah began to be structured, in which, incidentally, we still find the three ‘mothers’. These are the three mother letters, Aleph, Mem and Shin, which correspond to three archetypes, with their numerical correspondence, but also to the elements air, water and fire, as well as the primary colours yellow, blue and red. What if Dario Argento had associated these three mother letters with De Quincey’s three ‘mothers’? For example, assuming there is an association between Mater Tenebrarum and Mem, it would explain why there is so much water and so much blue in the film, even though the film is supposed to represent hell. Yes, there is indeed a lot of water, starting with the famous opening scene in which Rose descends into the flooded basement, as if to represent the passage into another dimension.
The alchemical perspective
Beyond the various assumptions, the importance given to colours and natural elements makes us understand that it is the alchemical language that is necessary to understand the philosophical discourse that underlies the film. In the film there is also an explicit representation of an alchemical laboratory, with a diabolical character on the stove, which appears in the scene in which Sara tries to leave the library. Alchemy is a perspective made up of transformations and transmutations, a sort of fusion of science and magic, of the rational and the irrational, which conceals disturbing mysteries about our world. In «Suspiria», Dario Argento proposed two different but complementary visions – ‘psychological’ and ‘anthropological’ –, represented by two different authoritative figures. In «Inferno», the alchemic vision, in which the two previous visions merge, refers us to Varelli, who, not by chance, was defined from the beginning as an ‘architect and alchemist’.
The male protagonist, Mark, in his wanderings through the palace, arrives at the very sight of Varelli, in a kind of ‘non-place’, outside time and space, but at the same time in the bowels of the earth. One would expect that, at the end of the journey, he would meet the Devil, but Varelli is described as the ‘builder’ of reality, a Demiurge. We are therefore facing a Gnostic system, in which the ‘palace-world’ is Hell and in which Varelli is a sort of deceiving God, but who, according to Dario Argento’s reading, has himself been deceived and enslaved by the ‘mothers’. And he even perishes because of technology, initiating the apocalyptic destruction of his ‘palace’. This suggests further ideas of nihilism, since it is basically the death of God.
In the film’s finale, the flames follow those of the analogous finale of «Suspiria», but without Susy’s smile, which had the flavour of a happy ending; the great final fire of «Inferno», on the other hand, leaves us with only the sense of Death’s omnipotence.
The poster comes from the website https://posteritati.com/ and can be found at the following link: https://posteritati.com/poster/48178/inferno-1980-italian-locandina-poster
The images shown in this article come from the website https://screenmusings.org/ and can be found at the following link: https://screenmusings.org/movie/blu-ray/Inferno/
These images are protected by copyright and are shown for illustrative purposes only, without any commercial purpose.