Mario Roncoroni: Filibus (1915) | featured image
Poster of Filibus (1915) courtesy of EYE Film Museum via Milestone Films

The Syllabus of ‘Filibus’ the Gentlewoman Thief

WWI was underway when silent film Filibus hit theaters, so this elegant, war-free escapism of immorality among the ruling class may have provided mass therapy.

Filibus
Mario Roncoroni
Milestone
12 October 2021

On the Blu-ray of Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate, Milestone Films trumpets the film in the same language used in its trailers: “The incredible 1915 Italian feminist, steampunk, jewel thief, cross-dressing, aviatrix thriller!” Is anything left out? Not much.

Mario Roncoroni’s Italian film, really just called Filibus, owes a clear debt to Louis Feuillade‘s French serials about elegant master criminals, notably Fantômas (1913-14) and Les Vampires (1915-16). Those films are about male masterminds, although the latter serial made a star of Musidora as Irma Vep, a female gang member who did a lot of skulking in a black catsuit.

In Filibus, by contrast, the criminal mastermind whose name terrifies the complacent aristocracy is in fact a woman, though nobody knows this except her retinue of assistants. Like Fantômas, created in French pulp novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, and like such “gentlemen thieves” as Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin and E.W. Hornung’s Raffles, Filibus is such a master of disguise that nobody knows who the person is or what they look like. In the case of Filibus, nobody suspects her true sex.

The audience is in on the fun from the opening credits, which show us Valeria Creti in all three of her Filibus disguises. Two disguises are male, one in a domino mask, and the third is probably her most real public identity, the wealthy Baroness Troixmonde. In other words, she’s an aristocrat whose hobby is preying on her own class. The name “Troixmonde” implies she belongs to three worlds, presumably the “haute monde”, the “demi-monde” and whatever’s in between. And this is a stretch, but maybe it’s meant to remind us of the archaic “tribade” for “lesbian”.

As the Baroness, she announces to this story’s requisite brilliant and tireless detective, the oddly named Kutt-Handy (Giovanni Spano), that she believes he’s really Filibus and that she’ll set out to prove it. He takes this as a tease or a misguided guess, of course, never suspecting that Filibus will indeed set about framing him with his own fingerprints and other devices to make him appear guilty of stealing the massive diamond eyes from an Egyptian cat statue. Such confoundings of the criminal and the detective are a common trick in this type of fiction.

Filibus carries out her masquerades, home invasions, and kidnappings with the aid of anonymous and interchangeable henchmen, especially those manning an airship that seems always to be hovering conveniently without anyone noticing. She whips out a telescope to scan the skies, then signals the machine via “heliograph”, a mirror reflecting the sun. The dirigible has a gondola hanging under it for the engine room, plus another bucket-gondola that can be lowered to the ground like an elevator on cables. When Filibus arrives in the bucket upon spacious patios and palazzos, she manages not to call attention to herself.

The sheer absurdity of this airship, which fits its era’s conviction in lighter-than-air travel as the wave of the future, is the kind of plot device so loved by the Surrealists in praise of Feuillade. In other words, it’s the sort of thing derided by realist-minded critics while children and fantasy-minded adults lapped it up with amusement. These conventions belong to the equally fantastic world of barons and detectives and Egyptian cats inhabited by the very rich.

The other main characters are Kutt-Handy’s sister Leonora (Cristine Ruspoli) and Leo Sandy (Filippo Vallino), the antiques collector who’s in love with her. Filibus arranges the fake kidnapping of Leonora partly to plant the detective’s handprints and partly to make time with Leonora while disguised as the mustached Baron who “rescues” her. They spend time strolling the grounds, and Sandy frets that the Baron is clearly more attractive to Leonora.

Like the airship and the cat’s diamond eyes, all this is presented without comment as part of the film’s world. Even when Leonora and the others discover the Baron’s disguise, they have no clue that Filibus is a woman.

This sounds like a lot of wild information, and perhaps it is, though the whole thing is presented clearly in 70 minutes, complete with the promise of a sequel. One can wonder at the extent to which critics may have pursed their lips at all these serials and things celebrating criminality and other transgressions. On the other hand, the Great War was underway and millions were in the process of being butchered, gassed, and bombarded, so this elegant, war-free escapism of immorality among the ruling class may have been its own special kind of mass therapy.

As with Feuillade’s films, the director uses a theatrical medium-distance style with only a few closeups as necessary. As shot by Luigi Fiorio, the “airship” set is superimposed against a sky background in a quaint and charming manner that fools nobody. There doesn’t seem to be any wind up there. All this is part and parcel of the unreal “let’s pretend” nature of the proceedings.

Obviously, Filibus especially interests us today because of the gendered wrinkle on its otherwise common “gentleman thief” shenanigans, and because of the chance to use the word “steampunk” for anything with an old-fashioned airship. It’s reasonable to trace the innovation of sexual identity to the writer, Giovanni Bertinetti, about whom I find a lamentable shortage of facts in English. There’s an Italian Wikipedia page about him.

The IMDB offers a short biography of Bertinetti by Lawrence Chadbourne, stating that the author is:

…best known for his science fiction novels, several of which feature fantastic flying machines, and also wrote a manifesto in 1918 on the Will and Energy of the Cinema that is considered to have been influenced by Italy’s then avant-garde Futurist movement. In addition he wrote youth literature including a sequel to the famous story of Pinocchio. Bertinetti also published under several pseudonyms including a woman’s name (Donna Clara) for his books concerning decorating the home and beauty for women.

– IMDB

EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands graces us with this “2K scan from a restored negative, tints exactly matched to the 1915 Desmet tinted-and-toned 35mm nitrate print”. This statement refers to the museum’s collection of film materials from Jean Desmet, a pioneering film distributor. The print is mostly excellent with a few brief passages of nitrate deterioration. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provides a new score, or you can hear a piano score by Donald Sosin or a third soundtrack in which Sosin’s score adds a theme song.

The bonus material on the disc includes four shorts shown at the Netherlands premiere of the main feature in 1916. One is a newsreel with lots of soldiers on maneuvers (which would have been the evening’s only indication of a war going on somewhere), one is a seemingly hand-tinted travelogue of Rapallo in Italy, another is a French slapstick comedy about a domestic maid who ruins her mistress’ new dress. The longest and most unusual one-reeler is Amour et Science (M.J. Hoche, 1912), about a man inventing a machine that allows him to see television images through the telephone.

The inventor goes temporarily mad when his frustrated fiancée asks her sister or friend to disguise herself as a man (more cross-dressing!) and pretend to make love to her when the inventor phones. He witnesses the scene on his big screen. The scene uses a split-screen technique. Fanciful and fascinating, the short was obviously chosen to reflect part of the main feature’s content.

Remarkably, we’re also given another entire film from Corona Films, the same studio that made Filibus. Running slightly longer than its co-feature, Giuseppe Giusti’s Signori Giurati (1916), or Gentlemen of the Jury, is notable not only for co-starring Valeria Creti of Filibus but also for being scripted by another woman, its French star Fabienne Fabrèges. IMDB indicates she appeared in more than 60 films and directed at least two. This is the only one she’s listed as writing. Here’s another personage of silent cinema we ought to know more about. Our ignorance is vaster than our knowledge.

Fabrèges wrote herself a juicy part as a heartless monster who uses her roulette winnings to persuade a doctor-boyfriend to open their own opium den. She vamps one simpleton after another while Creti’s character, who bears no resemblance to Filibus, looks on in anguish. As the title implies, the story culminates in a trial that uses a very interesting flashback technique.

If the story is a standard society melodrama typical of its “vamp” era, Giusti’s command of visual style and film grammar is superb, better than Roncoroni. Giusti composes in depth, with an eye for angles and lighting that’s a continual pleasure in this tinted print. I was reminded of silent cinema’s great pictorialist, Maurice Tourneur, and there’s no higher praise. If Filibus makes me want to see other stories about Filibus, Signori Giurati makes me want to see other films from Giusti.

Milestone Films has produced this lovely Blu-ray for its Milestone Cinematheque collection, and they’re letting Kino Lorber handle its distribution.

RATING 8 / 10
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