We overeducated people gotta like a movie where the main character is a professor of antiquities.  Yes, Dan Brown has written another novel featuring his hero Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), who solves puzzles nobody else can because he's so well read, and because he remembers everything.  More importantly, he's not just hanging out in the ivy-covered towers in complete obscurity; he's a world-renowned expert on....Dante?

            Yes, the context for this film is Dante Alighieri's 14-century novel about his personal tour of Hell, guided by the Roman poet Virgil.  Dante envisions nine levels of Hell, depending on one's sins committed while alive on Earth. (He also wrote two sequels about tours through Purgatory and Paradise.)  The 19th-century Illustrator Dore' made Dante's work even more famous by his elaborate artistic impressions of Dante's poetry.  It so happens that our esteemed Professor Langdon is not the only expert, though---he actually encounters an ER doc, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who's very knowledgeable herself.  The reason Dr. Langdon meets her is because he finds himself hospitalized in Florence, Italy, with a head injury, when according to his fuzzy memory he should be at Mass. General.  Dr. Brooks understands some of his mumbling references to Dante, and wonders if they might contain clues as to how Dr. Langdon ended up as one of her patients.

            As a further subtext, we viewers also meet Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who apparently has collected quite a following with his dire predictions of immediate crisis in overpopulation.  He says we will starve ourselves out of our own resources within a generation unless we do something drastic.  Frustrated at being dismissed as one of those “the sky is falling” crackpots, he decides to take matters into his own hands, by developing a deadly virus that will immediately kill off half the world's population.  The survivors, of course, will enjoy plenty of elbow room, but there may be some trauma in the meantime.

            So it's up to our resourceful Professor Langdon to solve the clues that Mr. Zobrist has left behind, to find the deadly virus before it's released.  The clues, of course, have to do with his expertise in ancient art and symbolism, as only he can both translate Latin inscriptions on centuries-old paintings, and interpret the clues that would take him to Venice and Istanbul as well as Florence.  And yes, the urgency is that there are people after him as he does his sleuthing, while in the company of our lovely ER doc, and he's not sure even who the bad guys are, much less why they are after him.  Worse, he's suffering from hallucinations related to the levels of Dante's Inferno, which we viewers don't know how to interpret, either.

            Director Ron Howard utilizes the herky-jerky hand-held camera technique, particularly at first, as our interpid Professor tries to work his way out of his mental fog.  Yes, there's some violence and some chase scenes, too, but fairly sanitized (it's still rated PG-13).  And don't bother trying to make complete sense of all the random clues and the arcane academia---it's really more about saving the world from the dastardly deed of a madman, as we breathlessly rush from one venue to the next while staying one step ahead of our relentless pursuers.  Fun?  Yes.  Logical?  Not so much.  But who knows how many people will actually try reading a little of Dante's Inferno as a result?  A little classical education couldn't hurt.  And might help.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you think of Hell as having several levels, depending on one's sins on Earth?

2)                  Do you think there is a Hell?

3)                  When has someone turned out to be not at all who they represented themselves to be?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association