Having grown up well after silent films went out of style, I struggled to find the appeal of them back in the days when I was studying features a bit more closely in college courses. For starters, everyone then (as everyone now) knows my personal preference lie in genre films – SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Mysteries, etc. – and most of the available library of silent pictures were far more conventional dramas and comedies. Yes, I did eventually discover Metropolis – which I adore (with some quibbles, naturally) – and a few smaller titles; but SciFi really didn’t find a lasting foothold in Hollywood and beyond until the 1950’s, so I left the silent stuff to be explored by classmates.
When I transitioned into doing film and product reviews on-the-web a few decades back, I did eventually start to probe a bit further into history. As a consequence, I discovered a few more titles to enhance my greater appreciation of what was out there; still, the silent features I watched rarely had anything beyond the occasional novelty that might draw me back to them. Every now and then, some clever camera trickery or an inspired performance caught my eye. Eventually, I realized that perhaps the era of silent storytelling just wasn’t going to tickle my fancy the way it did others, so I opted to only keep my eyes peeled for something truly different to explore.
Thankfully, Filibus came along recently. This 1915 caper delivers a better-than-average experience viewers can marvel over, and the fact that – yes!!! – it falls smack dab in the middle of genre entertainment inspired me to seek out and explore a bit more about its production, some facts I’m happy to share with you after the break.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“Flying high above the clouds in her dirigible, Filibus, the mysterious sky pirate, is a master of disguise and the scourge of millionaires, banks, and the police. Lowered in a gondola by her henchmen, Filibus steals from the rich and then mysteriously vanishes into the clouds.”
Occasionally, films of a certain era manage to sneak past those who would stifle some political or social messaging of their day; and Filibus surprisingly dabbled with subjects I suspect many would’ve found more than a bit taboo. Granted, some of these ideas don’t exactly pound a drum loud enough for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to hear; but viewers watching closely might be delighted (or aghast) at some of what director Mario Roncoroni and screenwriter Giovanni Bertinetti squeezed into these 70 minutes.
First, a little education is in order …
In the early days of Science Fiction novels, SciFi rarely explored the forward-thinking technologies of tomorrow. More often than not, these founding works looked at the intersection of society and culture: how do we build the world of tomorrow, what type of society must we become in order to properly greet the future, how can we harness what we have today to set us on a destined path, etc. Sadly, most folks who write about Science Fiction these days either don’t know that fact or they abhor it, and they instead focus on spaceships, ray guns, time travel, and the like. I don’t say this to belittle anyone’s work: rather, I’m trying to place this film within the greater context of its era in order to explain a fraction of what makes it extraordinary.
Ideas like suffragette, gender differences, and even class warfare? Believe it or not, they were at one time the province of the realm of Science Fiction. (Today? They’re just headline news.) In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, these topics represented a culture ‘advanced’ beyond the present, so perhaps it was only natural to incorporate these related works into a genre that looked ahead as opposed to backward. There were other tomes – ones written by Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells – that obviously drifted much closer to what we today align with our own working definition of SciFi, but can imagine what the shelves of a Barnes & Noble may’ve looked like in 1915?
This reality is precisely why Filibus – as a character and as a film – was considered Science Fiction.
Filibus (played by Valeria Creti) – as a woman – led a life of high adventure, and that was something books and film attached to men. Essentially, this sky pirate was a thief who preyed on the upper class; and this kind of high-stakes profession was also more easily attributed to males of the period than the kinder sex. She commanded a crew of men to do her bidding, harnessed the gifts of science to stay aloft in the heavens … and I think you can see where all of this is heading: this daring young woman was leading a life fiction typically granted only to men.
But progress didn’t stop there …
So was Filibus the first openly Lesbian portrayal on film?
I’ve no way to know that for certain, but I daresay that it’s the oldest of record I’ve been able to locate. By putting gender stereotypes on their head, the film certainly flirted with ideas still found a bit controversial (in certain quarters) to this day, and I can’t help but wonder what everyone involved in the production thought of all this.
Even as a traditional film, there’s still enough charm to recommend it. The effects – though obviously dated – work just fine for what they’re meant to achieve here, bringing the airship to life amongst the clouds. No doubt some of these sequences might bring some unintended laughs from today’s viewers – how could you ever sneak up on anyone on the ground while flying this massive metallic blimp overhead? – but those are the typical barbs thrown about by those dissecting features based entirely on modern structure.
Why, shouldn’t we be more interested in how Filibus was, perhaps, the James Bond of her day? She’s loaded with cutting edge technology, leading a life of adventure, and perhaps fulfilling a lifelong dream to be a gender-bender icon? Men don’t frighten her, even women are swooning at the prospect of being near here, and – if diamonds are a girl’s best friend – will she stop at nothing to have two of biggest on record for her very own? These are the reasons to enjoy this film.
I’ve done some casual reading into the studio behind it, and Corona Film only lasted a few years. It looks as though they launched Filibus as what we’d call today a potential ‘franchise’ property with several other adventures intended for production. Alas, Italy answered the call for World War I, and the studio was shuttered. One can only imagine where we might be culturally and ideologically today if the world’s first cross-dressing Robin Hood was allowed to continue (and inspire) for a few more features. Scripter Bertinetti is remembered for his Science Fiction novels; could it be that he may’ve truly anticipated the future?
Filibus (1915) is produced by Corona Film. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being handled by the very reliable Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? Well, this is clearly an extremely dated picture; as a consequence, I’d imagine those involved in its restoration had to go to great lengths to find usable negatives. Though the soundtrack has clearly been fully updated, the video is understandably grainy and occasionally distorted by decay. There is one sequence that’s (yowza) very poor; just grin and bear it as it lasts for about 10-15 seconds, obscuring much of what’s on the screen. Beyond that, the rest is good. As for the special features? Alas, there’s very little of what’s provided that pertains directly to Filibus, but the other cinema shorts common to the era are worth a look, even if only once.
Recommended. What’s difficult in recommending something as specifically thematic as Filibus is that its audience is a bit elusive. Clearly film aficionados might enjoy it, though I suspect it’s not a feature they’d return to all that often. Students of history (and, yes, film history, too) might find the picture’s pioneering perspective worthy of study (and maybe even a term paper or two), but again that’s a fairly narrow focus. And the movers and shakers in the LGBTQ+ movement could establish a kinship with it, seeing that what they stand for today may not be all that different than what artists and storytellers were putting on film over a century ago. Beyond those subsets, though, I found it only occasionally inventive enough to give it more than a passing mention as a genre flick.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray Disc of Filibus by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.