Thursday, 21 September 2017

Sky high… Filibus (1915) with John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

This was a rare treat: a 35mm restoration from the EYE Filmmuseum in Holland, which has only been seen previously at the San Francisco Film Festival and which was, 102 years on, making its debut in the UK an obscure survivor from just before the beginnings of the cinema dark ages in Italy.

But Filibus’ singularity extends beyond its physical rarity for it is a most unusual film: a female anti-hero, a super-villainess no less, a crime boss given to cross-dressing, ordering her henchmen about and flying around in a stealthy airship. She’s cunning and hi-tech, using guile and gadgetry to outwit her male enemies in the police and, especially her arch-adversary, Detective Hardy (Giovanni Spano) who she outwits at almost every turn.

Filibus aka Count de la Brive or is it, Jacob Rees-Mogg?!
Filibus (Cristina Ruspoli) is usually dressed androgynously but also poses as Baroness Troixmonde in civil society, and at the film’s start she challenges Hardy, saying that she is going to expose him as Filibus. Now this seems like a big ask but Filibus/Troixmonde has a secret weapon in the form of a silent airship and its silent lift which lowers her close enough to Hardy as he lounges in his villa’s garden to knock him out using chloroform. She takes his hand print and will use it to make a glove with his finger prints to implicate him in her crimes.

Directed by Mario Roncoroni, clearly Filibus is influenced by Feuillade’s Fantomas and its bad-gal even pre-dates Musidora’s Irma Vep in Les Vampires. It moves more quickly than either and is less earnest being far more concerned with whimsy than believability. Whereas the French serials are quite procedural the five episodes of Filibus just keep on moving onto the next shock even if some of the modern audience tonight found it hard to keep up with the century-old jokes... there is no doubt this was intended as fun!

Leonara and the Count
Now, things get even more interesting once Filibus adopts the guise of the Count de la Brive, a moustache can do a lot for a girl, especially combined with a hat. The Count starts to romance Hardy’s sister, Leonara for no other reason than perhaps he/she wants to but it’s also another way of keeping her enemy close.

There are a couple of Egyptian diamonds that need stealing from an ancient cat and Filibus is just the man/woman to do it… but will she spot the camera the Detective has hidden behind fake glass eyes? Of course she will!

 What’s so interesting about Filibus is the antagonist’s sheer brilliance; she is always one step ahead of the forces of law and order and she acts not so much out of greed but the need to make grand gestures. Filibus wants a game and what more challenging task than to frame Italy’s great Detective Hardy and to tell him she’ll be doing it from the outset, collecting the reqard meant for her capture?!

To be frank, Hardy’s a bit dull and maybe he had it coming lazing around in that impressively appointed villa. Besides, he hasn’t got a stealth-Zeppelin nor any henchmen and you could hardly call him glamorous… he’s going to have to rely on luck if he’s to stand any chance.

The ending of the fifth part suggests that there’ll be more to come but events were to overtake ambitions as Italy got sucked into the Great War. We’ll never really know what was to become of this entertaining master villainess but you can be sure it would have been fun.

Hardy at work, finding himself guilty!?
John Sweeney accompanied with a carefree spirit of adventure; unlike Detective Hardy he could see Filibus’ every move and motivation and he played with her plans to perfection.

On the undercard tonight were two shorter films that featured prominent women.

“No darn skirt bosses this ranch!”

Marie Walcamp is one of the Girl Ranchers
The first was The Girl Ranchers (1915) about a group of women who inherit an agricultural business out West and attempt to keep things a little too tidy. They alienate the cow-pokes with too many ribbons and then try to ban moustaches…  But, just as the men shave off their face-fur and the women adopt dungarees (it’s like the college Women’s Society in 1984…) the ranch is attacked by Indians forcing compromise all round.

For the many and not the few and stronger together or some-such.

Lillian Henley accompanied this hop-along with good-humoured poise, waiting for the cowboys to finally shape up in this reverse version of Greese.

Then we had an abridged version of Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917) which provided some fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of the Fort Lee movie studios including the revolving sets, glasshouse stages and the director, acting as himself.

Doris Kenyon in Follywood
This was Frances Marion’s first script and featured some interesting choices for the heroine… should she persist in her dream or return home. Dramatically the denouement would have worked better with the full narrative but it was still fascinating none-the-less.

Another cracking programme and so good to see three teen-age silents; the new media was in rude health. I'm currently highest-bidder on eBay for a second-hand airship - with slightly used group of hench-people - expect me to descend silently and in disguise, for all future screenings.


  1. Filibus is just wonderful - one of my favourite silents. I'm so happy that you got to see it on the big screen!
    (Katherine of silentsplease)

    1. Hi Katherine - it was a real treat and just a joy to watch. A very different take on the super-villain from Fantomas. Very Italian! Best wishes, Paul