8 episodes. Sog.: Pio Vanzi. F.: Cesare Cavagna. Int.: Emilio Ghione (Za la Mort), Kally Sambucini (Za la Vie), Alfredo Martinelli (Pierino), Alberto Francis Bertone (Grigione), Nello Carotenuto (Musoduro), Ida Carloni Talli (duchessa Giovanna di Saint Valentin), H. Fiorin, B. Pasquali, Oreste Bilancia (il poliziotto). Prod.: Tiber-Film
35mm. L.: 5869 m. D.: 321’ a 16 f/s. Bn. The Black Envelope (L.: 632 m. D.: 35’), The Torture (L.: 743 m. D.: 41’), The Hideaway (L.: 682 m. D.: 37’), The Rope Net (L.: 590 m. D.: 32’), The Hunt for a Million Francs (L.: 762 m. D.: 42’), Crooked Aristocracy (L.: 826 m. D.: 45’), 6.000 Volts (L.: 760 m. D.: 42’), Lent Festival (L.: 874 m. D.: 48’)
I topi grigi, an eight-part serial produced by Tiber Film in Rome, is part of the complex saga of Za la Mort, an apache and outlaw who was the protagonist of 12 films, four serials, three novels and various theatrical shows created between 1914 and 1930 by Emilio Ghione (1879-1930).
Thanks to his alter ego Za, Ghione would eventually become a genuinely popular star. On one hand he incarnated the role of fearless hero and was the emblem of muscular masculinity. On the other he was also a natural performer in the role of a dandy in several melodramas set in the salons of the decadent, contemporary nobility – a setting reflecting the D’Annunzio-inspired atmosphere of the period.
The serial is made up of diverse narrative ingredients. It could be defined as a broad polyptych, presenting the public with stories derived from crime fiction; the exotic settings of Emilio Salgari and the farandole in which the fantastical goes hand-in-hand with the naturalistic; and Za la Mort’s desire for a Horatian peaceful retirement following the transformations demanded by his extraordinary adventures. Sometimes different genres coexist in the same episode, with Ghione inserting stereotypical digressions and details from different literary currents (feuilletons, adventure stories, children’s fiction, etc.) in order to distract audiences hungry for dramatic revelations from the slender plot. The serial takes spectators to the four corners of the world, revealing a hitherto unseen, Ulysses-like Za la Mort.
I topi grigi is still the only one of Za’s serials to be conserved more or less intact in relation to its original length. Incomplete but still legible traces of Za remain in the feature-length Anime buie (1916) and the Berlin-shot L’incubo di Za la Vie (Der Traum der Zalavie, 1924) while fragments of Il triangolo giallo (1917), Dollari e fracks and S.E. la Morte (both 1919) are known to exist in public and private archives.
The Black Envelope. Za la Mort has retired to the countryside on the outskirts of Paris, together with Za la Vie and the elderly Aunt Camilla. One day he notices several men manhandling a young boy dressed in rags; he goes to his aid and invites him home. The boy says that his name is Leo and that he was kidnapped as a child but that he doesn’t remember anything else about his past: the truth about his origins is hidden in a mysterious black envelope. Za recognises the handiwork of the Grey Rats, a band of thieves led by Grigione, and sets in motion a plan to recover the envelope, an endeavour in which he is ultimately successful.
Restored by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Cineteca Italiana – Milano and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique with funding provided by Proyecto Lumière from the original nitrate negative without intertitles, recovered by Cineteca Italiana at Pittaluga Archive, and a safety positive copy printed in the Fifties from the same negative preserved at Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique with scenes decomposed in the nitrate print. Intertitles of La busta nera have been invented based on the plot proceeding since no materials of that period was available. For the other episodes intertitles have been reconstructed based on the production company lists held by Cineteca Italiana.