Electric Bento had the divine opportunity to sit down with documentarian Boris Acosta and his Inferno by Dante cast in a roundtable interview.
Dante Alighieri made Italian approachable when he wrote The Divine Comedy, a trip through the Nine Layers of Hell. Over the course of the past 10 years, documentarian Boris Acosta worked tirelessly to assemble a script and a cast worthy of making Dante’s divine story approachable for modern audiences.
To wit Electric Bento was able to assemble a significant cross section of Inferno by Dante’s cast and crew for a divine roundtable discussion about their experiences making the film. We’ve structured this discussion in a roundtable format where each of the participants, Armand Mastroianni, Dennis Slattery, Helene Cardona, Jose Rosete, Vincent Spano, Angela Kerecz, Massimo Ciavolella and director – producer Boris Acosta provide their respective answers.
We are proud of this interview and hope you enjoy it. Electric Bento would like to extend a warm thanks to all the participants and a special thanks to Boris Acosta for his tireless efforts to get this film in front of audiences.
What inspired you to participate in this telling of Dante’s Inferno?
Armand Mastroianni: When I met Boris and he spoke to me about the project.
Dennis Slattery: I have loved this poem for decades and have the opportunity to teach the entire poem to graduate students at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpenteria, CA. When Boris approached me to participate in the Inferno rendering, I leaped at the chance.
Helene Cardona: It’s wonderful to help spread this classic story and I was thrilled to be invited by Boris to participate.
Jose Rosete: A publicist friend of mine introduced me to Boris and he just happened to be looking for an actor. Good timing!
Vincent Spano: I’ve always admired this great poetic work of fiction by Dante. Also the fact that he was influential in the Late Middle Ages in establishing his own Tuscan dialect as the most prominent literary language in all of Italy.
Angela Kerecz: Initially, I was extremely impressed with the passion Boris had for this project and the cast he already had assembled. Those factors, along with my own knowledge of the Divine Comedy, made me definitely inclined to participate in this project.
Massimo Ciavolella: I have taught Dante’s Divine Comedy for over 40 years, it’s one of the great literary poems of all time
Your background is unique enough that your participation was not random. Is there a moment in your life or even your career that you care to recount that said to you, “this is the project for me”?
Armand Mastroianni: After speaking with Boris and seeing his passion for the project, I decided to come on board. We had many discussions about the approach and direction the narrative would go and I became totally involved.
Dennis Slattery: “This is the work I want to teach” came to me decades ago. I have been writing on Dante’s poem for decades. I used my experience with Boris to write a full length study of Dante’s Commedia. “Day-to-Day Dante: Exploring Personal Myth Through the Divine Comedy,” published some years ago.
Helene Cardona: I’m in a somewhat unique position in that I have both a literary and acting background so this project was a nice fit.
Jose Rosete: I try to have that feeling with every project I get involved in. I find something about it that makes me feel that way.
Vincent Spano: No, but after reading the script, I knew the role for me was Virgil.
Angela Kerecz: First, let me say that my acting career is very important to me. I found this opportunity to be an honor because of the uniqueness of the project and also the importance of it. This project was also very diverse from other projects I have participated in. I loved being able to put my own interpretation of my reading into the story. I’m also very honored having been chosen to participate in a project that was shown at Cannes Film Festival, which is something that has not happened with any of the other films I have participated in.
Massimo Ciavolella: Boris Acosta’s enthusiasm convinced me.
My background is such that I understand what Dante’s Inferno represents, but I have not read the Divine Comedy. This documentary made the material more approachable. That approachability is due to the structure of the narrative, you each contributed your own observations. Is there something that you hope audiences will take away from this experience?
Armand Mastroianni: The message that Dante is conveying to us through his use of imagery and prose. It’s an epic journey into the mind of a great poet. His descriptions of the sinners and their punishments is extraordinary.
Dennis Slattery: Yes. Rather than see this 14th century poem as an artifact way back there, to grasp it as a universal story that all mortals participate in, whether they realize it or not. To pigeon hole it as a religious poem only is to sell it and the reader short. Dante’s psychology is as profound for us to reflect on today as people did in the middle ages.
Helene Cardona: I hope this experience rekindles audiences’ interest in Dante and The Divine Comedy.
Jose Rosete: To just be entertained by the visuals simultaneously enjoying the different personalities providing the narration.
Vincent Spano: An appreciation for both brilliant literature and a man’s profound imagination, reflecting the strong beliefs of his time.
Angela Kerecz: I totally agree and give Boris full credit for his creativity and being able to allow us as readers to make such a centuries-old story told in our own words. This definitely does make it more relatable to an audience of today, particularly by using noteworthy actors from a very diverse background, and will hopefully bring more attention to the second most read work in the world to the Bible.
Massimo Ciavolella: I considered the D.C. an extraordinary poem, and the fact that it is steeped in medieval Christianity is to me irrelevant. I just hope that those who see Boris Acosta’s film(s) will be moved enough to go and read Dante’s poem, and perhaps decide to learn Italian in order to enjoy the beauty of Dante’s language.
Is there something you took away from this experience that you can share?
Armand Mastroianni: A much deeper understanding of the work and an appreciation for Dante’s genius.
Dennis Slattery: Bringing the poem to life in a new way was very exciting; talking abou tit on camera with Boris’ guidance put the poem into a whole new vessel, or container for me and excited me further by knowing it could reach millions who had not read the poem as was as for those who had. My experience took the poem out of the classroom into the broader, global stage.
Helene Cardona: Boris Acosta’s enthusiasm was incredibly contagious and it was a lot of fun to work on this project with him.
Jose Rosete: I’ve never been involved in an “on screen” narrator and I thought it was unique.
Vincent Spano: I also did the voice of Virgil in the animated version. I enjoyed voicing the beautiful words her had written for the character.
Angela Krescz: I really enjoyed reacquainting myself with the Divine Comedy, and also really studying the story once again so that I could give my best interpretation of my role for each of the three readings I did. In other words, I did not want to take cliff notes and basically reword them…. I wanted to fully understand the roles I was reading for, so that I had full confidence in portrayal to the best of my ability.
Massimo Ciavolella: I was just moved by the images and the commentaries.
Is there a favorite moment or anecdote from the production that you would be willing to share?
Armand Mastroianni: The process of working with Boris was amazing as he is so knowledgeable about the Divine Comedy. He revealed the details one could easily miss on a first read.
Dennis Slattery: I enjoyed, as I waited my turn to go on stage, listening to others who were being recorded, how they moved into and through a particular canto of Inferno. One was an actress who was so animated in her presentation that I was mesmerized.
Helene Cardona: It always amazes me when I think of how ahead of his time Dante was. Just like Chaucer made written English accessible, Dante did the same with Italian.
Jose Rosete: Again, just timing with my involvement. Another actor had been shifted to another role and it fell in my lap.
Vincent Spano: It was fun to get a special bottle of wine (from Boris) with the Dante label on it.
Although some of the rings and levels of the Divine Comedy can be honestly very dark and even disturbing, there is also a love story in the message which I was very drawn to…. The depths that Dante would go through and the levels of hell he experienced where unimaginable, while also chasing after his love.
At this point, we turned to the film’s producers for their insight in to the process. Making a documentary is a unique process and this was our opportunity to get first-hand experiences. We invited all of the participants to respond to these questions.
Massimo Ciavolella: The many conversations with Boris Acosta.
What inspired you to want to tell this story?
Boris Acosta: I studied The Divine Comedy at UCLA as part of my minor in Italian Literature and had always said that doing so was my best College experience because it was a hard lesson about lift itself. So I always talked to people about it, until I came across a Jewish friend of mine who I teased about going to Hell. After I briefly told him the story, he asked me if there was a film out there abou tit. I didn’t know, so I investigated and in 2000, I found a VHS [cassette] online, which I bought right away, but after I lent him the video, he said he had not understood anything. So I realized that it wasn’t well produced and after one thing leading to another, I started the process of producing films based on Dante’s Inferno.
Armand Mastroianni: Clearly it’s an important and timeless work that need to be shared with each generation.
Dennis Slattery: As I mentioned previously, it is a universal story; no one has escaped infernal moments in their lives when indeed they felt all hope was lost; no one has not had a guide appear to assist them through a crisis. There are so many instances in Inferno that touch us all in our own particular mythic journey.
Jose Rosete: Boris was obviously passionate about it and had already put in so much work before I got involved.
Angela Kerecz: Honestly, such a centuries-old story is very important that it remain relevant and not lost amongst current literature and this technologically driven world that especially the youth of today live in. Boris has made this his life’s passion to keep the story alive. When someone has such passion for a project, you have to believe in it!
Making a documentary is a long journey. Your film is unique in that it combines historical footage, animation, live footage and a dual-language narration. Can you talk more about the process of how you assembled all of this?
Boris Acosta: It took me 10 years to the point of being content myself. I started with a different idea, very different of what both my documentaries about Dante’s Inferno turned out to be, so it was a learning process for me. At the beginning, I only had Gustave Dore’s lithographs to use to tell the story visually, and the Internet was not what it is today, where you can find almost anything. So it was very frustrating because I didn’t have enough material to tell the story the way I wanted, particularly because even some of Dore’s illustrations are not very accurate and were even confusing to me when I studied The Divine Comedy. I used whatever I could find online and bookstores to present my first doc in Cannes in 2008 but even though everybody liked it, I didn’t at all. So, that 72-minute feature length film became a black and white 42-minute middle length film. It was good to test the waters, the audience, the distribution, the response on social media, etc. Then, I came across a great painter, who offered to work with me under my direction to interpret Dante’s Inferno the way I saw it. I jumped into it without knowing that it would take 9 years to complete 75 paintings. There was a lot of doing and re-doing, mainly after Florentine Dantologist Riccardo Pratesi, offered his expertise, which was better than mine regarding details and accurate interpretation of Dante’s own words. During this process, I continued my investigation until I came across the film L’Inferno (1911), which I didn’t know it existed, but the supposedly restored version I bought was not very good. So, I got a digitized copy of the original film from the Library of Congress, which we restored in house and was better to me in the end. The animation was never planned, after somebody saw a few of the paintings, asked me if they could be animated, and responded “I don’t know”, but it pushed me to investigate and I met an Indian animator at NAB in Las Vegas, who said he could do it cheaply. So, I jumped into it. Nevertheless, that was another huge hurdle, because as the paintings changed, every single clip had to be changed as well. Geez, I’m exhausted by just telling the process of making every piece of Inferno by Dante. Getting the cast was easy for not known actors, who I mainly met at AFM in 2007 and on, but getting celebrities to agree to work with an unknown producer was very hard, particularly because ALL agents were ignoring my requests. So, the only way I could get them to join the production was by meeting someone that knew someone else, so it was kind of “refered by a friend” process. The first celebrity that I met and agreed to work with me was Armand Mastroianni, who introduced me to Vincent Spano, Al Sapienza and Rico Simonini, who later brought Eric Roberts to join the cast. Initially, I wanted to have a world cast, so I got several unknown actors from different parts of the world, but I was annoyed by their accents when they spoke in English, so I decided to use only native speakers in English and Italian for obvious reasons.
Angela Kerecz: Before participating, I did extensive research of the readings that had already been assembled and the trailers that he sent me, along with definitely reacquainting myself with the story. I actually did my reading in Tennessee where I reside against a huge green screen with specific instructions on positioning and camera lenses Etc from Boris in order to make my reading cohesive with the others.
I know you’re working on the remaining two sections to make a trilogy of documentaries. What else are you working on (if you can share that)?
Angela Kerecz: Another factor that is amazing about this project is that it is told in Trilogy form ….from Inferno to Purgatory to Paradise….. with each of my readings and roles being very different. This definitely gives the project longevity with several different publicity and premier opportunities, which is great for myself as an actress and also the project, and keeping it constantly in the media and drawing more attention to the relevance of keeping the story alive. I definitely look forward to helping Boris promote each of the trilogy components as time goes on.
Boris Acosta: I’ve been working on the live action film of Dante’s Inferno for many years too. The script was re-written 16 times so far, and as I understand it must be 18 to be perfect. Same for the feature animation. I also filmed a documentary in Punta del Este, Uruguay about this incredible summer resort and world jetset where I had the incredible fortune to grow up. However, for different circumstances, it has been postponed over and over. I also have other things lined up, but Dante comes first in all respects in my life. I feel that everybody in the world should read The Divine Comedy, because on the surface it is a story of the afterlife and a love story, but deep inside it is, about everyone of us, my story, your story.