The audience for Martin A. Smith’s live scoring of L’Inferno sat tucked in one corner of V22’s empty warehousing space, barely occupying a fraction of the cavernous room. Nevertheless, the entire space was utilised: once for its striking acoustic properties, and again for the atmosphere that subsumes once the lights go off. What lurks within the dark? The residual decay of a Gregorian chant, or something frightening fathomed by the audience’s imagination?
Firstly, it’s a fantastic choice of film. Initially screened in 1911, one can only imagine the reaction to the startling – and remarkably innovative – array of special effects on show, the result of both some sly film splicing and optical illusion. The tale is of Dante’s scouring journey through hell, taking in the various punishments bestowed upon its blasphemers, assaulters, adulterers and gluttons. So with bodies contorted into trees, heads swivelled backwards, towering giants, decapitation victims and Lucifer himself amongst the subject matter, director Giuseppe de Liguoro seized an opportunity to set an early filmmaking quality bar, both in terms of special FX and sheer size of costume budget.
Only occasionally does Smith dip into a more explicitly “hellish” sound pool – sending the screams of harlots spiralling in hideous hurricanes while on screen, flailing bodies are scorched by boiling tar – and for the most part, the soundtrack edges more toward the more contemplative and eerily juxtaposing. Waves of Gregorian chant fade into soft synthesiser movements; while the horror of the imagery speaks for itself and needs no explicit enhancement, Smith places focus on the perverse splendour within the situations and the landscapes themselves. The most striking sequence (in terms of its fusion of image and sound) is the floating bodies of lust, which judder in jerky circles and spiral upward, flickering into mere film reel residue before promptly re-emerging like some deteriorating hologram. Smith’s sound choices remain ethereal throughout, gifting the tornado a terrifyingly misplaced aura of calm while shedding light on the twisted beauty of it.
Another fantastic aspect of the soundtrack is the way in mimics and synchronises with those abrupt transitions that occur within silent film; Smith isn’t afraid to break up the ambient drift, and happily swaps out the ethereal electronics to accommodate those anecdotal tangents into flashback. Little snippets of Baroque classical make fleeting entrances as Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Manatesta recount how their love blossomed out of reading Lancelot together, receding back into gentle ambient surges and bitcrusher plosives once the film flicks back into landscape of the Inferno. It’s been over a week since the showing, and I feel that it’s credit to Smith’s efforts that my recollection of this film is of a very wholesome and inseparable experience of image and sound, in which he not only successfully slots into the atmosphere evoked through the visual, but also does stellar job in recasting its moods and atmospheres.