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'Dante: Inferno to Paradise': PBS Does Justice to a Catholic Classic

| May 14, 2024 | By

It's rare these days that literary works from history are presented without the intrusion of contemporary attitudes, politics, and ideologies -- but PBS' Dante: Inferno to Paradise is a welcome exception.

Directed by Ric Burns (brother of documentarian Ken), Dante: Inferno to Paradise mixes documentary interviews and dramatizations to create a portrait of medieval Florentine poet and politician Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and the circumstances surrounding the creation of his masterpiece The Divine Comedy.

The narrative poem, written in Italian, follows Dante on an imaginative, allegorical voyage through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Leading him are the Classical Greek poet Virgil and, later, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Driving Dante throughout is his doomed and unrequited love for the beautiful Florentine woman Beatrice.

Aired on PBS in March, the two 2-hour episodes of Dante: Inferno to Paradise are available to stream at through June 30, as well as on DVD, and for rental or purchase at

Lushly produced, the episodes properly contextualize the life trials that drove Dante to write his masterwork, and the social, cultural, and religious ideas that populate it.


For some perspective, I turned to FTP's producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C.:

What is your personal history with Dante’s Divine Comedy?

It’s my all-time favorite literary work. In seminary, when I had more time, I subscribed to a quarterly periodical dedicated to the author and his seminal work.

I’m not the only person to heap superlatives on The Divine Comedy. I’ve heard it referred to as the “third testament”—the best expression of Catholic theology that wasn’t the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament/Gospels.

I’ve read Inferno the most number of times of the story’s three volumes. Ironically enough, the most compelling historical characters tend to be the least virtuous.

Why should today’s Catholics pay attention to this work?

I recommend any Catholic read Dante. There’s even a graphic-novel version that would be suitable for kids. I think though, young adult Catholics might appreciate Dante’s personal journey, given the hellscape that is modern dating.

By the time Dante reaches the end of Purgatory, he’s cleansed of an unhealthy obsession with Beatrice, a Florentine his age who died young.

The middle volume encourages a reader to bring their best (see: purged) version of themselves to today’s courting rituals and eventual (hopefully!) marriage sacrament.

Did director Ric Burns do justice to Dante?

Yes. I think his brother, Ken Burns will finish his career with the greater canon of documentaries. Ric Burn’s Dante may be among the best singular works either brother has produced. (And I am a massive fan of Ken’s Civil War.)

Akin to how Ken invented the “Ken Burns editing effect” -- subtle camera movement on still photographs -- I think Ric has revolutionized the use of reenactments.

He selected age-appropriate actors. And, the little verbalizing they did comes in the form of reciting lines from Dante’s epic poem.

The stylistic approach led me to get emotional, a rare response when I’m watching documentaries.

Also, Ric told the story as is. I didn’t detect any political or ideological agenda. So much content is billed as “we need this story for our times.” With Dante and his story of personal conversion, it’s a story for all times and places.

How well was the faith angle portrayed in Dante: Inferno to Paradise?

I tend to see stories now in geometrical terms, x and y axes: how the filmmaking disciplines emphasize emotional moments along the storyline.

So, correspondingly, the documentary portrays both vertical and horizontal theology …

Dante attends to his relationship with God while reconciling the relationships to his fellow Florentines along his journey.

What was the most impactful part of the production to you?

The image of Satan stayed with me. Dante imagines him a three-headed creature devouring three of the worst betrayers in history up to that point: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot.

They’re all stuck in ice at the center point of Hell named after the deadliest of sins, Pride. It reminds all of us, though of the opposing virtue of humility.

If Catholic, Reconciliation always brings us to that point of humility before the Lord.

In 1924, T.S. Eliot said, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” What do you think of that assertion?

Maybe I’ll have to retract Eliot’s “The Wasteland” poem I used for Good Friday a few years ago. Kidding aside, I would have to agree with his assertion.

With other authors, one can glean a snippet or snippets of truth. Dante and Shakespeare, however, provide the highest probability of covering almost all of life’s truths.

And with Dante, he’s humble enough to know, what he doesn’t know. His vision of Heaven is a kind of heaven. He never reveals what the final sphere of Heaven contains, because like any other human, he doesn’t know.

Incidentally, as I work through Catholic writer Peter Kreeft’s four-volume history of the top 100 philosophers, I realize, too, that the philosophical world could be divided into two thinkers: Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas. There really is no third.

Any other insights?

I was always told you can’t fully appreciate Dante unless you know the politics of Florence in the early 14th Century. This usually would constitute enrolling in a college class or reading a heavily annotated translation of the Comedy.

This PBS production saves you the time and money, by interviewing the top-rate professors in the subject. In that way, Ric Burns does Dante the best justice.


Image: (L-R) Antonio Fazzini as Dante Alighieri (PHOTO: Steeplechase Films, Tim Cragg), and Fattori May appears as Beatrice Portinari, in 'Dante: Inferno to Paradise' (PHOTO: Steeplechase Films, Luca Ciuti)/PBS

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Content Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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