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What the ‘Inferno’ is going on here?

Dan Webster

Like all art, movies tend to reflect the cultures from which they spring. In theme, at least. In the case of Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's novel "Inferno," though, the very style of the film seems to reflect the turbulence that has afflicted the U.S. for the past year or so.

That, at least, is a point I try to argue in a review of "Inferno" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the current political sphere, which is mercifully nearing the end of what we’ve comically been referring to as a presidential campaign, a kind of debate strategy has been perfected.

Debate, at least to those of us who learned about the practice in high school, involves taking a specific stand on a given topic. From there you’re obliged to offer logical arguments in support of that stance, to rebut the arguments put forth by the opposition, and then issue a concise summation aimed at convincing those listening that you have constructed the more convincing analysis and conclusion.

Sounds quaint, right? Such polite discourse possesses little, if anything, in common with what goes on in today’s version of political exchange. Instead of traditional debate, what you tend to hear, even from those who are supposed to represent both sides, is denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.

Now, this is supposed to be a movie review and not a political rant. So, how does all this pertain to the product that Hollywood fills the nation’s movie screens with on a weekly basis? Specifically, how does it apply to “Inferno,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller of the same name?

Well, with a third, and more pointed, question: To wit, if you had been hired to tell a tall tale of high implausibility, one filled both with enough red herrings to feed a borough of Beijing and more absurdities than a Samuel Beckett stage play, what style would you adopt? If you were Ron Howard, that style might involve varying blends of, say, denial, obfuscation, misdirection and outright lies.

“Inferno” gives us a familiar Brown protagonist, Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious inconography and – better consult your dictionary here – symbology. Playing Langdon for the third time, Tom Hanks gives his standard everyman performance – though this time he is forced mostly to reel from frame to frame, both because of several blows to Langdon’s head and – not to give too much away – other mind-altering means.

The resulting confusion he experiences is only fitting, since this reflects the filmmaking style that Howard has chosen for, I suspect, a couple of reasons.

One, Howard, who is now 62, may think – mistakenly – that a continually moving camera will make him seem more contemporary. Two, he also apparently thinks that the best way to cover up the deficits of a weak storyline is to immerse Langdon in a crazy mystery that Sherlock Holmes would have trouble figuring out.

That mystery involves, among other things, Dante’s vision of Hell, the plague of overpopulation, a crazed billionaire and his shadowy minions, a virus that threatens to decimate the human race and clues to a puzzle situated in some of the world’s great architectural treasures – Florence’s famous Duomo and Istanbul’s grand museum, the Hagia Sophia.

Howard’s decision to show us these majestic sights is the single treat that his “Inferno” offers. Otherwise, as Shakespeare might say, the film feels like an attempt to dazzle the audience with the kind of sound and fury that, ultimately, signifies nothing.

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