Kill It With Fire: A Review of Inferno

Dan Brown’s Inferno made Dante Alighieri turn in his grave, and the extraordinary talent of Ron Howard did not suffice to save its adaptation for cinema. Tom Hanks reprises his role as symbologist Robert Langdon, as he suddenly wakes up in a Florentine hospital and does not remember what happened to him. He starts having visions. Naturally they are of creatures that reference The Divine Comedy’s Hell. Langdon is helped by Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to gain his memory back and solve the enigma, to prevent a devastating global pandemic initiated by the fanatic mind of Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster).

Ron Howard does delight us with a touristic scavenger hunt, from Florence’s Bomboli Gardens, through Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica, all the way to Istanbul’s Yerebatan Sarayi Cistern. We get a stupendous postcard depiction of Italy where three quarters of the film takes place sprinkled with some notorious works of Renaissance art, such as Botticelli’s The Abyss of Hell which is just the first clue of the charade.

Ever since The Da Vinci Code was published, Dan Brown’s historical inaccuracies and manipulation of artworks were evident, something that would come up in all of his blockbuster novels. Just to give you an example, in Inferno Langdon refers to Dante’s death mask located in Palazzo Vecchio as authentic, when it’s actually a replica made in 1915. However for mere entertainment purposes one could ignore the American author’s many imprecisions.

However  the matter becomes serious when bioterrorism is the protagonist of Inferno. The topic is timely, as the Earth’s population is confronting the problems of resources consumption, climate change and global demography. In past centuries there were plagues that would solve the problem of overpopulation. When the industrial revolution and scientific progress gave a chance to humans to cure diseases, in 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus predicted that the world would be out of food by 1890, due to population growth. The solution he suggested was to enforce marriage restrictions, segregation, compulsory sterilization and forced abortion. In other words genocide.

Dan Brown illustrates a similar solution through the villain, supported by senseless scientific references that can be spotted even by those who aren’t med-savvy; the author confuses cerebellum with cerebrum, and PET scans with CT scans. Dan Brown makes his warped geneticist succeed with the Malthusian plan, whereas Ron Howard has the good taste of avoiding this finale in favor of a happy (and politically correct) ending. But the filmmaker is not exempt of critique on a different matter.

Ron Howard’s Inferno on the surface comes across as a tribute to the artistic heritage of the boot-shaped land, but David Koepp’s screenplay is Italianphobic. The first flabbergasting line that attests this accusation is when Robert Langdon stands in front of The Battle of Marciano. He is trying to figure out with Dr. Sienna Brooks where to go next, and introduces her as his niece to Marta Alvarez, director of the museum in the Palazzo Vecchio. The woman immediately comments: “Professor Langdon there is no need for you to call her your niece, we are in Italy!” Is this a reference to Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga and Ruby the Heart Stealer? According to this logic should Europeans identify all Americans with Mr Donald Trump’s assertions on the way he grabs women by their genitalia?

But let us move on to Irrfan Khan playing Harry Sims aka The Provost, who as the leader of the ‘Consortium’ initially supports Bertrand Zobrist and eventually switches sides. After killing someone who is pointing the gun at Langdon, he tries to alter the evidence of his carnage and says that his erratic modus operandi “is good enough for the Italians.” Furthermore we see Sienna and Robert that need to lift a heavy grating of the Doge’s Palace to escape from their chaser. They ask an Italian wretched street vendor to help them, and the woman asks for a hundred euros in return. As icing on the cake, of this depreciative image of Italians, is the ease with which Dante’s death mask disappears and newly appears in a surveilled museum, right under the nose of the people in charge of security.


Tom Hanks greets fans at the films premiere.

But let us not place all this Anti-Italianism on the shoulders of David Koepp, Ron Howard and Dan Brown. Inferno is not the first movie to give into this phenomenon. Eat Pray Love displayed the Italian philosophy of “dolce far niente” i.e. the beauty of doing nothing, according to which Italians basically spend their entire days not working and dozing around.

To Rome With Love was a clumsy tribute to Fellini’s The White Sheik, but gave Woody Allen the opportunity to depict Italian men either as “mascalzoni,” meaning scoundrels, eccentric artists singing under the shower in stage theaters, or untalented people seeking notoriety at all costs. However cinematic-denigration of Italians does not relate to contemporary cinema alone. If we travel back in time, during the seventies Billy Wilder’s Avanti! mocked Ischia’s bureaucratic pace: “In Italy, the lunch hour is from one to four,” was the leitmotiv of the entire flick.

At this point one can’t help but wonder: why does American cinema feel the urge to represent Italians as sex maniacs, indolents, crooks, or fools? If, following this fashion the world were to think through stereotypes, what should European audiences say when they see Robert Langdon running through hidden rooms in the attic of Palazzo Vecchio, chased by a woman who falls through the stupendous fresco of the Salone dei Cinquecento? Should the cliche identify American entertainment as neglectful towards Giorgio Vasari’s masterpiece, in the name of sensationalism? Should cinema from the Old Continent depict Americans as people who relish in the glorification of gratuitous violence?

Some say that in every cliche there is an element of truth, but why always pick the negative representation of the Other? Why glorify your own nation and spite another? What happened to self-irony? When did patriotism get devoured by nationalism?

Italy has many flaws. There are talented people as cheaters, there are romantics as sexual maniacs, and there are geniuses as dimwits. But one thing this country certainly lacks is self-respect. Italians have always been xenophiles and very little supportive of their compatriots.

This symptom could be attributed to the so called “campanilismo” that some have tried to translate either as parochialism, localism or insularity. Yet the term has a more profound meaning, and fully applies to a country that encountered unification very late in history, in 1861 to be exact. Before that time Italy was divided into realms, such as the Papal States or the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

The sense of belonging to the place of birth still surpasses any sense of national identity. Today, those deeply rooted rivalries, between different regions, provinces, towns, and neighborhoods persist. Lest we forget that Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri whom we all know as Dante was exiled because of campanilismo. It was the era of Guelphs (who were sympathetic to the Papacy), and the Ghibellines (who favored the German Holy Roman Emperors). The obsessive “bell-tower” (campanile) identity further fragmented the political opponents into White and Black Guelphs. Dante belonged to the White Guelphs, who were strongly against the Pope throwing his temporal weight about in Florence. As a consequence Pope Boniface VIII exiled the poet from his hometown. This is the “bell-towerism-effect” on Dante in a nutshell.

If you want a taste of contemporary campanilismo attend the famous Palio di Siena, an intense horse race between the different “contrade” (district factions) of Siena, the rivalry between them is ferocious. Or ask Italian film critics whether they like the movies of Academy Award-Winning Director Paolo Sorrentino. They will probably twitch their noses but talk wonders about Alejandro González Iñárritu, François Ozon, Amos Gitai, Kim Ki-duk, any talented filmmaker, as along as there is no connection to the Bel Paese.

Italians admire foreigners but not their own people. When a compatriot rises to success they get frustrated, but if their reputation is sullied they feel what the Germans call Schadenfreude, that is the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Maybe that is why Italians deserve to be ridiculed by American cinema.