I accidentally got Dante’s Inferno added to my high school’s 9th grade English curriculum became of this movie. After watching the movie for the first time (around 9th grade of high school) I went to its IMDb trivia page, as is my custom, where I saw that Kevin Smith had drawn structural influence from Dante Alighieri’s epic poem (9 sections broken up by title cards for the 9 circles of hell) and had named his protagonist after the Italian in tribute. This then led me to ask for a copy of the trilogy, which I read and enjoyed, which caused my mom to boast about it to the other moms, which eventually got back to the school and, years later, landed it on the English curriculum. Sorry, kids!
Yet the connections *are* there, reflected in the poor choices made by Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) as he navigates a day covering a shift at the Quick Stop Convenience Store, kept company by his best friend Randall Graves (Jeff Anderson), something of a Virgil figure. (Virgil, if you’re unfamiliar, being a dead poet Dante greatly admired, who acts as his guide through the underworld.) This isn’t a 1:1 retelling, and writer/director Kevin Smith smartly has various sins overlap and intertwine. Dante cheating on his girlfriend is clearly a product of Lust, but is trying to juggle them both Greed? The cheating itself also has elements of Treachery (betraying his girlfriend), and possibly Fraud. Fraud is kind of fascinating, as the Eighth Circle is divided into two Bolgia; one for “Panderers and seducers” and one for “Flatterers,” which basically amounts to people who lead astray or exploit other people. Dante’s later attack on Randall, once he accidentally exposes Dante’s infidelity, is an example of Wrath and/or Violence. (Which… there’s some nuance there, but let’s face it, they’re basically the same thing) The only circles without obvious corollary are Heresy and Gluttony, though Gluttony it could be argued is an aspect of Greed and Lust.
It’s worth noting that the first circle of Hell doesn’t actually represent a sin. The first circle is Limbo, occupied mostly by the unbaptized and virtuous pagans – people either born before Christ or those after who didn’t accept Him, but also lived a virtuous life. (Catholic dogma, everybody! It’s kind of messed up.) Dante is in a much more secular limbo, uncertain about his future and paralyzed by passivity. As Randall points out near the end of the film, after hearing one too many renditions of “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” Dante is in a hell of his own making. He either goes along with the path of least resistance, or he makes a choice that is an effort to avoid making a choice. As with the Inferno, Clerks ends with Dante beginning his ascent out of hell, maybe not toward something good, but at least something better. (If we wanted to continue this metaphor, Clerks II is purgatory, but I don’t think that holds up. Though Kevin Smith DID jokingly say the sequel would be called The Passion of the Clerks, so…)
Smith would go on to address religion, and Catholicism specifically, more directly in Dogma, but I really love the sideways approach that we get here. There’s a universality to feeling stuck, and constantly having to interact with people when you just want to be left alone. (Randall’s classic line “this job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers” feels like an echo of Sartre’s “hell is other people.”) There’s also a wonderful strangeness to the film’s stubborn grounding in reality. Smith gets a lot of flak for his unimaginative direction, but it works to the film’s benefit here. A director with more flourish might have tried to draw out Dante’s feelings in camera placement and movement, but the largely neutral, static camera conveys that frustration so much better. It’s not just that he’s stuck, he’s stuck in reality. Just like the rest of us.