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November 01, 2021

Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate


Mario Roncoroni - 1915
The Milestone Cinematheque BD Region A

Is it possible that a century or so from now, audiences will take a look at the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies, and giggle at what seemed so technologically advanced at the time? The thought crossed my mind while watching Filibus, a reminder of that old joke that the future is not what it use to be. Filibus is just one of the identities of a Baroness who stages heists for the thrill of daring the authorities to catch her, dropping from the sky in her personal dirigible. She tries to implicate the detective who pursues her as the real Filibus, creating a glove with his fingerprints, and inserting a miniature camera inside the eye of a statue of a cat. Part of what has made Filibus of interest to contemporary cinephiles is that while the title character is a woman, she presents herself in men's clothing and is assumed to be a man by the police.

The sexual ambiguity continues with the Baroness also taking on the identity of a mustached Count, courting the daughter of the detective. Filibus belongs with the various screen characters of the era, Fantomas, Judex, even Irma Vep. They may possibly be criminals, and they have their own moral codes, but there is pleasure in watching them outwit their adversaries. Filibus appears to have been intended as the first in a series, but the production company, Corona Films, went out of business soon after Italy entered World War I. The Italian film critics of the time dismissed Filibus for its story as well as the special effects. It has only been more recently that the film has been reevaluated and appreciated for depicting an independent woman as an action hero at a time when Italian women mostly lived severely restricted lives. The more fantastic elements, clunky by contemporary standards, add to the charm.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2K scan of the restored negative by Milestone in conjunction with EYE Film Institute of Amsterdam. There is some mottling, scratches, and other signs of aging. The print was monochrome tinted. The repeated adjective by contemporary critics of the film is "fun". And to be clear, this is not the condescending sense of amusement but enjoyment at seeing a world that was still straddling the 19th Century in some ways while imagining some of the technology of the 20th Century. Very little is known about director Roncoroni other than that he continued is career in the 1920s in Spain. The cast was made of actors who were relatively unknown at the time, and in some cases only recently identified. While Corona Films was based in Turin, Filibus was shot in Genoa. Filibus, along with the terrific extras, has Dutch intertitles with English captions, as these films were originally part of the collection of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet. All of the films have scores by pianist Donald Sosin, with Filibus also offering a score performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. My choice is the third option of Sosin's piano with occasional vocals by Joanna Seaton. Seaton sets the mood with her lyrics and operatic voice singing, "Filly-boos!"

The extras include a recreation of how Filibus was originally presented to Dutch audiences with a newsreel that primarily features World War I soldiers in ceremonial events, a beautiful hand tinted travelogue on Rapallo, Italy, and a short French comedy, Onesime et la toilette de Mademoiselle Badinois by Jean Durand (1912). Durand's career only lasted through the silent era. The star is Sarah Duhamel, a gifted physical actor who could perform pratfalls with the best of Hollywood's silent comedy stars. Another French short, Live and Science (1912) may not have intentionally been a comedy, but it presciently depicts a Zoom call gone wrong. A short about Jean Desmet and his life as a film distributor and archivist rounds out the short supplements.

And if that was not enough, there is a second feature from Corona Films. Signori Giurati, a 1916 melodrama directed by Giuseppe Giusti. Filibus star Valeria Creti has a supporting role, while screenwriter Fabienne Fabreges stars as villainess Lina Santiago. The story concerns Santiago teaming up with a doctor to open a secret club, "The House of Forgetfulness", essentially a high class opium den where wealthy men get drugged, fall asleep at the premises, and get their pockets picked. Giusti adds a nice use of split screen with the doctor on the right side of the frame confessing his misdeeds while flashbacks are on the screen's left side. The blu-ray may well be one of the best releases of the year, but it also is a reminder than occasionally cinema history can be fun.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 1, 2021 07:06 AM