Movie on Dante’s life, journey leads to look at hellish real-world events

WTTW Channel 11 is showcasing “Dante: Inferno to Paradise,” a film by Ric Burns that mingles the life of the dour Florentine poet with his famous journey down into hell, up Mount Purgatory, and through the gates of heaven.


Dante Alighieri was in charge of widening roads in Florence at the end of the 13th century. I wish more people knew that. His masterpiece “Commedia” — the “Divine” part was tagged on much later — is so dominant in the public mind that the more practical aspects of his life are overlooked. He was a soldier, too.

WTTW is trying to wave the flag for Dante, airing a two-part, four-hour film, “Dante: Inferno to Paradise.” Several readers, knowing of my fondness for the dour Florentine poet, urged me to watch.

Hmm … I’m tempted to invoke Samuel Johnson’s line about dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” My general takeaway is, as with the Dante video game, anything that puts him on the radar is good.

Opinion bug


That said, I don’t understand why the big budget CGI movie magic put behind flogging every minor character in the Marvel universe can’t be spared for a story that has stayed firmly in the public eye for over 700 years.

The production values are adequate on “Dante: Inferno to Paradise” in the way this past season the Lyric Opera diluted the grandeur of ancient Egypt into a stained green wall and three florescent lights. A generous audience can overlook it; but why should we have to?

The trouble with Dante’s book is that it is written with such verisimilitude that it’s easy to think of him as a guy who went to hell and took notes. The WTTW movie slides into this trench, with a sulfurous, ooo-scary mood that reminded me of “Dark Shadows,” the 1960s vampire soap opera.

Given how few readers will run to watch the movie — I haven’t finished watching and probably never will — I wouldn’t take up your time had not one specific date been mentioned in the program.

For those unfamiliar, the Commedia is the story of Dante’s journey through hell, up purgatory’s mountain and into heaven, accompanied by the Roman poet Virgil, at the behest of Beatrice, his celestial love.

Beatrice was a real person: Beatrice Portinari. As a young man, Dante mooned after her through the streets of Florence, in a way that today would be seen as creepy, even stalkery — Dante never says anything to Beatrice.

They do meet, on May 1, 1274. The movie notes this meeting is set out in Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Life of Dante” — the first biography of Dante. While Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, was 8 when Dante died, he did interview people who knew him. It’s a fun read.

Being handy with this math thing, I noticed the fateful meeting occurred exactly 750 years ago Wednesday.

Journalists love anniversary stories, and we don’t have much opportunity to comment on the 750th anniversary of anything, never mind a key life event for a writer whose work I admire. I’m sure I’ve never done it before and might never get another chance before I go to meet my eternal punishment (Circle Two, with those buffeted by their desires).

Or will I? I began looking for the next 750th anniversary story on deck.

Ah — there’s one coming next year. In 1275, Edward I of England passed a law ordering Jews to wear an identifying badge — not the yellow star the Germans would embrace but a depiction of stone tablets. The law also required them to live in ghettos.

At that point, Jews, who arrived in England with the conquering Normans more than two centuries earlier, had 15 years before they’d be exiled. Oliver Cromwell wouldn’t allow them back until 1656 — 366 years. Quite a long time, really.

Which might remind student protesters that the current business of telling Jews they don’t belong on whatever spot they happen to occupy is just the latest round of a very old game.

As is Western agonizing over control of the Holy Land. The first crusade started in 1096. The Children’s Crusade occurred in the summer of 1212. Details are fuzzy, but young people — then and now, subject to passions — decided to head to Jerusalem to take matters into their own hands.

Not to give them ideas — though that would tidy up campuses across the country. Time will do that anyway, or would, if we let it. It’s a shame college administrators are so god-awful stupid, generally — it’s almost a job requirement — because the smart thing to do would be to cough into their fists and leave the protesters alone. They’d all be gone by the end of May. Bloodshed cries out for immediate solutions; history has a way of saying, “Not so fast. Or so easy.”

Northwestern students set up a protest camp on Deering Meadow last week.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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