L’Amazzone mascherata sees Francesca Bertini in the role of Franca de Roberti, a woman who vows to clear the name of her husband after he is framed for treason. Here she is, appearing in the opening ‘credit sequence’ as both de Roberti and her alter-ego, the Masked Amazon:
After her husband is court-martialled and sent to jail, de Roberti figures out the identity of the one who framed him: Jean Stérosky, circus director and secret Silistrian spy, with whom Franca and her husband had previously organized a show. However, she lacks proof, so she decides to go undercover: “I’ll visit him in Silistria, but he won’t recognise me.” She joins a travelling circus and achieves fame as The Masked Amazon.
The Masked Amazon and her circus travel eventually to Silistria, where Stérosky is living the high life, attending soirées at which serpentine dancers perform.
Stérosky is eager to meet the famed, mysterious Masked Amazon. But she won’t remove her mask just yet …
But is it any good?
In my opinion, L’Amazzone mascherata is a solid but not above-average 1914 film. It’s neither innovative nor backward-looking stylistically; its main virtue, besides Bertini, is its coherent plot. It’s refreshing for having a female protagonist who drives the action and saves the day.
L’Amazzone mascherata is mostly told in medium and further shots; I would have loved a few good closeups of Bertini. Neither the staging or editing seemed particularly distinguished to me, though there are a few nice choices: the juxtaposition between the Silistrian Loïe Fuller dancers and Franca looking pensive; a double-exposure in which di Roberti recalls Stérosky and his assistant (played by Leda Gys in blackface as a gypsy-type character); the cross-cutting to Lieutenant di Roberti in his cell as she thinks of him.
That said, a couple of the main set pieces don’t come off. The serpentine dance sequence is short and not particularly well staged, and the car and train chase shown in the poster above is not nearly as cool as the poster makes it look. It was obviously meant to be a major climactic scene, but it lacks much momentum or fizz, although we do get this nice overhead shot of the car:
What I enjoyed far more were the scenes where de Roberti vamps Stérosky in an attempt to gain the evidence to clear her husband’s name. Layers of clothes, veils, and masks, that she sheds as she gets progressively closer to her goal.
Also noteworthy: Bertini as Franca laying one on her husband. That’s a pretty bold kiss for a 1914 film!
The diva conditions
Really, L’Amazzone mascherata is more of an adventure story than a diva film; Franca de Roberti spends much more time in plot-driven, self-motivated action than she does in lounging around, emoting, etc. However, being a film starring La Bertini, many diva properties are still in effect.
Copious costume changes. I counted a solid eleven, maybe even a couple more. That’s one outfit per five minutes. Here’s a selection:
Hats that border on the avant-garde. Bertini is the mistress of striking hats, particularly the plumed variety.
A veiled diva.
Symbolic naming. Not symbolic per se, but there’s some obvious branding going on when Francesca Bertini plays a character named Franca de Roberti.
A notably long necklace. Bertini/de Roberti wears extremely long necklaces in several scenes, and bonus points should be awarded for the gown seen in the above screenshot (an the publicity still further down the page), where her dress is wearing the necklace.
Mirrors. In L’Amazzone mascherata, the theme of double selves/identities is taken up by Bertini’s masks and veils. However, there is an interesting scene in which the Silistrian plotters are shown in a bar, a sharply tilted mirror in the background apparently reflecting them. It’s a nice idea, even if action within the scene shows that mirror is not actually catching them.
A dramatic scene involving flowers. The Masked Amazon has a room full of flowers sent by her admirers, but she can’t help but remember her wrongly jailed husband.
Men with unusual hair. After the fake beards in Ma l’amor mio and Mephisto’s getup in Rapsodia Satanica, this is surely a category to be considered. This award for L’Amazzone mascherata goes to the unique style of Stérosky. Not only does he have the kind of facial hair which makes it looks as though he’s wearing a bridle, he appears to have grown a moustache on top of his head.
Did I mention that Stérosky is played by Emilio Ghione of Za La Mort fame? The facial hair was so distracting that it took me a while to realize. A side note: in her book on the Italian divas, Angela dalle Vacche mentions Stérosky as an example of anti-Semitism in early Italian cinema. This makes me think that the original Italian intertitles for L’Amazzone mascherata must differ considerably from the Dutch ones, because I didn’t see any indications in the film that Stérosky was meant to be a Jewish character.
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Bertini and L’Amazzone mascherata in America: The Woman Who Dared
L’Amazzone mascherata was released in America in March 1915 under the title The Woman Who Dared. The IMDb page states that the Italian title for the latter is undetermined, but they are certainly one and the same – reviews and adverts in the trade press and fan magazines describe the plot in detail and feature stills from the film. (Edit: the two titles are now merged on IMDb). In this era Bertini’s films were distributed in the US by George Kleine, who promoted The Woman Who Dared as “a story founded more on wit than violence.” A review in the 5 September 1914 edition of Motography states that Frances [sic] Bertini “has seldom been seen to better advantage”, succeeding at “heavy emotional acting under the most trying circumstances”. The reviewer also praises the photography, attractive settings, and well-structured plot. James S. McQuade of The Moving Picture World (20 March 1915) also reviewed the film positively:
I was deeply impressed and all the time much pleased when viewing two private presentations of “The Woman Who Dared”. [..] The story has a powerful grip, and is so well constructed that interest never wanes until the final fade-out. The production is marked by fine acting, costuming, settings and photography. [..] The acting of Francesca Bertini is always admirable.
Less positive was the review in Variety (15 March 1915), which summed it up as “the usual foreign production” and noted that a number of people walked out before the end of the screening. While Bertini’s work was praised, the reviewer wrote:
The male members have not all been well selected. Some are decidedly unpleasant looking individuals. The man playing Ivanhoff [i.e., Stérosky] has a comedy makeup good for a number of laughs. The moustache looking affair at the top of his head looks ridiculous.
I can’t disagree with that. (Incidentally, this review comes directly after one for A Fool There Was). Also of note: in the US edition, names were changed: Countess Bertrand rather than Franca de Roberti, Alexander Ivanhoff rather than Jean Stérosky. Full points for keeping the theme of Bertini’s name across the languages.
Francesca Bertini was known to American audiences from several films: the highly-thought-of L’histoire d’un Pierrot (IT 1913), released in the US as Pierrot the Prodigal; Venomous Tongues (Il veleno delle parole, IT 1913); The Song of the Soul (La canzone di Werner, IT 1914); and Rameses, King of Egypt (La rosa di Tebe, IT 1912). From what I can tell, it does not seem that Sangue Bleu was released in America; and interestingly, the publicity still of Bertini in the black dress with attached necklace from L’Amazzone mascherata does not seem to have been used in connection to The Woman Who Dared.
And another quotation from McQuade, bolstering my wish to see L’histoire d’un pierrot: “a characterization as delicately and gracefully poised as a butterfly on the petal of a flower. [..] I shall always admire Signorina Bertini for the apparent ease with which she simulates the varied whims and passions of human life. And her depictions are not confined to types of her own sex; for Pierrot was a man, and a very complex type of man at that.”
Interestingly, an American film called The Woman Who Dared, starring Beatriz Michelena, was released in 1916 by the California Motion Picture Corporation. The American film was based on a 1903 novel of the same name by Alice Muriel Williamson. Like the Italian film, it centres around a European spy intrigue, but according to the available synopsis, the plot is quite different. It seems likely to me that the American title for L’Amazzone mascherata was taken from Williamson’s book to provide name recognition to the audience and due to the similarity in subject matter.
This advertisement for The Woman Who Dared (US 1916) appeared in Moving Picture World in May 1916 and in Motion Picture News on 27 May 1916.
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L’Amazzone Mascherata [The Masked Amazon; De Geheimzinnige Amazone; The Woman who Dared]. Dir. Baldassarre Negroni. Roma, Italy: Celio-Film, 1914. Available at the European Film Gateway.