The Voice of “Inferno”
What is often missed in a silent film is the emotion of the voice: the meaning of the dialogues is presented in the interleaved captions, but the emotion communicated by the actors comes from the image, sometimes only evoked by the piano music that usually accompanies it. Already from our first work, “The Last Days of Pompeii”  we began to process our live voice in sync with the speech of the characters in the film. Our ‘dubbing’, in that case, was carried out with a totally invented language aimed at emphasizing the emotional state of the character or his kinetic qualities exclusively through the intonative profile, intensity, pitch, timbre, and rhythm of the speech, regardless of the strictly verbal content. Avoiding the most obvious solutions of ‘dubbing’ the actors, we set ourselves the problem of giving them a sonic identity, trying to arrive, albeit with original timbre-expressive solutions, at a form of identification and recognition of the characterizing traits of each figure. In the film “Inferno” we had to face a much more complex task and a more difficult challenge: how to use the voice, in the case of a film based on a literary masterpiece? The problem that immediately emerged during the preliminary phase of analysis of the film is the enormous distance between the film rendering of Dante’s Inferno by Bertolini and Padovan and the poetic text: little survives of Dante’s masterpiece in the film, if not the simpler aspects of the structure and events. It is impossible to compare, if not in a fragmentary way, starting from the film, with the complexity and depth of the various levels of reading of the first canticle.
The creatures of hell and the damned, in our soundtrack, are expressed with sounds, with noises, but also, at times, with silence, as in the case of Dante and Virgil.
The texts shown in the interleaved captions accompanying the film were not recited, but some verses from the poetic text were taken up. The voices, thus captured by the microphones, are transformed by complex computer processing until they become mutterings, free phonemes, colored bands; ultimately: pure sound, treated as such. But they are voices that also maintain a semblance of human speech, which although devoid of any complete and denatured meaning, is in any case quite expressive and therefore capable of following and in some way ‘interpreting the motions of the soul of the protagonists (this is the case of Ciacco, Charon, Ciampolo of Navarre, the Giants).
In other cases the transformation, although present, (as in the case of Vanni Fucci, Capaneo, and in part Ugolino and Farinata degli Uberti) does not completely cancel the meaning of the words. In still other cases (Cavalcanti and Anselmo, son of Ugolino) the voice is only slightly elaborated and the text is thus fully intelligible, and in any case, a relationship is maintained with the feeling of the characters represented. In an extreme case (the flashback of Pier della Vigna’s blindness and death) we arrive at the real actor’s reading of the poetic text, in an almost detached relationship with the emotion of the events, but in a strong relationship with Dante’s expressiveness.
Thanks to the exclusion of verbal content, it was possible to work in a border region between speech and music, where the intonative profile, intensity, pitch, timbre, and rhythm determine a deeper meaning (such as in the case of Pope Niccolò III).
Our goal was to create ‘phonic actors’ through the vocal dimension, acoustic elements with their own ‘figurative’ value that could interact with the composition of the shots and with the rhythmic scanning of the images.
Another main idea of our projects was to develop a sound structure parallel to the film but strongly linked to it. This structure also had to enter into a relationship with the visual part not in a linear way, but in an often unpredictable way, oscillating between the use of traditional conventions of the sound/image relationship and a total non-conventionality aimed at exploring new dimensions of the relationship between music and film.
The possibility of pursuing such intent is certainly linked to the type of ‘historical’ film, in which the movie is available in its final form. The absence of indications from the director and the production allows, in fact, the composer freedom of action – one could even speak of arbitration – hardly imaginable in a traditional cinematographic process, but also a great responsibility towards the filmic text.
The composition of a soundtrack can affect the story by revealing details (sometimes fundamental) that the image cannot always make explicit by itself. Conversely and especially when it is designed for a silent film, the sound that does not put itself in some relationship with every detail of the story, visual or even emotional, can frustrate the expressive intentions of the image, spreading over it a uniform patina that risks flattening everything.
From this point of view, every sound is important, whether considered as ‘music’ or as ‘ambient sound’. In order to fully reaffirm this principle, we have completely renounced this distinction and, on the contrary, we have quietly played by exchanging the traditional roles and functions that separate the music from the other sounds present in the film. For example, we have often assigned emotional and metaphorical functions to ‘noises’, or on the contrary environmental functions to ‘music’, obtaining unusual and original results, also thanks to the 5.1 surround technique. In reality, all three levels (music, ambient sound, and voices had interchangeable functions and roles, overturning the usual idea of separation between these three areas. This approach was also facilitated by the collective dimension of the work: the same shared sound could become part of the vocal expression for one composer, part of the music for another, part of the ambient sound for yet another.
The distinction between ‘sound’ and ‘noise’, or rather between “music” and “sound effects” in a film is not a trivial distinction, because it is the relationship with the image that often plays the fundamental role in establishing its typology. Those that for example in the cinema of Antonioni, Bresson, Leone, Lynch, Tati, Tarkovskij are transgressions to the cine-musical norm (especially those in which the ‘sound’ conveys the sense of the sequence, or those in which the ‘noise’ is detached from its traditional mimetic function) have become an integral part of our way of conceiving the soundtrack.
The challenge we faced was that of trying to use conventions, but at the same time to experiment with possible ways for a transgression. The assumption, to always keep in mind, was that this transgression, while recognizable as such but without being extraneous to the path, should function in an equally organic and, so to speak, ‘natural’ way as the norm.
Mauro Cardi, Luigi Ceccarelli, Alessandro Cipriani
· Cipriani A., Cifariello Ciardi F., Ceccarelli L., Cardi M., 2004. “Collective Composition: the Case of Edison Studio” in Organised Sound 9/3 Cambridge University Press
· Cipriani A., Cifariello Ciardi F., Ceccarelli L., Cardi M., 2006. “Nuove tecnologie e composizione collettiva per il cinema muto” in Close Up Anno X – n. 18, marzo-giugno 2006 – edizioni Kaplan, Torino
· Latini, G., 2009. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari: la sospensione della verità nella partitura e nella performance elettroacustica di Edison Studio, Relazione al Convegno Internazionale “Ascoltare lo schermo”, Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”, 10 novembre 2008.
· Cipriani, A. 2010. Energia del suono: la re-invenzione audiovisiva del cinema muto nelle performance di Edison Studio e nuove forme di organizzazione dello sguardo, Relazione al XVI Convegno internazionale di Studi cinematografici “Cinema & Energia”, Di.Co.Spe. – Università degli Studi Roma Tre, 9-11 Dicembre 2010.
· Cifariello Ciardi F., Cardi M., Cipriani A., Ceccarelli L., 2011. ” Condividere la tela: il live cinema di Edison Studio per ‘Inferno’ ” in Le Arti del Suono n.3/2011 Ed. Orizzonti Meridionali, Cosenza