MARIO RONCORONI’S FILIBUS was Corona Films’ top-billing serial for 1915. Shot on a tight budget in northern Italy, it’s a silent caper movie in which the title character, a criminal mastermind, employs cunning and state-of-the-art technology to steal a couple of priceless Egyptian diamonds. Along the way, the mysterious Filibus takes some time to seduce Leonora, the beautiful sister of police detective Kutt-Hendy, the man who’s trying to thwart the crime.
Here was a silent film featuring thrilling locations, an airship as the secret base of the title criminal, and a number of James Bond-style gadgets, all in the service of the first gender-fluid character in movie history. Filibus is a cross-dressing international person of mystery who impersonates both the glamorous Baroness of Troixmonde and the foppish Count de la Brive in the course of the movie. She is revealed in a final twist to be a woman, and cinema’s first openly lesbian heroine was born.
In the early 20th century, criminal masterminds were all the rage. In 1898, H. W. Hornung’s Raffles, “the Amateur Cracksman,” opened the way in Britain, but it was the French who embraced the concept with anarchic gusto during the Belle Époque. The adventures of Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin (1905) and Allain & Sauvestre’s Fantomas (1911) were controversial instant bestsellers, soon adapted for the screen. In 1915, silent movie siren Musidora portrayed Irma Vep, the ruthless leader of the Paris criminal cabal known as “Les Vampires.” Criminals-as-heroes were a worldwide sensation, much to the censors’ chagrin, and the public kept asking for more.
Davide Mana, formerly an environmental scientist, works as a writer and translator.