Za la Mort, the Last Apache

Anime buie
R: Emilio Ghione. D: Hesperia, Kally Sambucini, Emilio Ghione, Amilcare Taglienti. P: Tiber Film. It 1916
Print: Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino
Span. intertitles

Anime Buie (‘Dark Souls’), fourth in a series of films featuring the character Za La Mort, an honourable French apache (street criminal gang member) and his adventures in the criminal underworld and beyond. The character was the brainchild of Emilio Ghione, who wrote and directed the decade-long series, as well as starring as Za. With his sharp cheekbones and sunken eyes, Ghione is one of the most distinctive looking actors of his time.”
Hesperia! The diva as star attraction in Emilio Ghione’s Anime Buie
Silents, Please!


“Casque d’Or and Zerlina, the two rivals for Za La Mort’s affections, wait for him to be released from prison. After various provocations, the two women fight and Zerlina is killed. When the police arrive, Casque d’Or admits to the crime, but the police do not believe her and arrest Za La Mort instead. In prison, Za La Mort receives a top hat and tails, and sends a message to his apaches, asking them to bring him some sleeping pills, which will make him appear dead. There is then a gap in the surviving film. The next scene shows Casque d’Or in Mexico, where she has built a career as dancer under the stage name Hesperia. Four millionaires court Hesperia, giving her flowers and going to see her dance in a Mephistophles costume. Za la mort, under the false name of Gil Negro, has instead become a billionaire, apparently thanks to his investment banker, but actually thanks to his forgeries. One evening at a ‘Tabarin’ the two meet again. Za, however, is again arrested and Hesperia begins to work in a circus. When a fire breaks out in the circus tent Za, providentially escaped from prison, saves his woman. They flee together starting a new life as peaceful farmers.”

“Born in Turin to a relatively well-known painter, in whose footsteps he followed early, Ghione got his break in film as an extra in Aquila film and worked consistently in the film industry for almost two decades, passing through most of the major film studios (Celio, Cines, Caesar-Film, and Itala). Although his character’s name was not always featured in the title, Ghione starred in and directed many Za la Mort films, including Nelly la gigolette (1914), Za la Mort (1915), Anime buie (1916) (…) and Ultissime della notte (1924), the last in the series. According to Denis Lotti it wasn’t until his move to Itala in 1919 and its version to Za la Mort that Ghione became a true star as the Italian version of the nineteenth-century Parisian apache, the criminal or street ruffian who populated the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Émile Zola and, onscreen, the wildly popular French Fantômas series (Louis Feuillade, 1913). (…)
The above cited Anime buie reveals both this tendency towards the criminal  and nefarious as well as Ghione’s unique onscreen charisma as Za la Mort. The film features Ghione in a variety of roles: as the apache Za la Mort, who then escapes to America to become the successful businessman Gil Negro, and then as the ultimate cowboy after he escapes from prison with his love interest, Casca d’oro, played by the diva Hesperia. This range shows off Ghione’s ability to incarnate credibly a variety of roles on screen, aided by strategic costume changes. The film’s multiple settings, from continental Europe to urban America and then the Wild West, are the various landscapes into which the character successfully blends, reinforcing the elasticity of persona that characterized Za la Mort and Ghione.”
Jacqueline Reich: Stardom in Italian Silent Cinema. In: Frank Burke (ed.): A Companion to Italian Cinema. John Wiley & Sons 2017, p. 61

Further reading:
Joseph Albert North: Emilio Ghione and the Mask of Za La Mort

>>> Ghione as director: Il circolo nero

>>> Ghione as actor: L’amazzone mascherata