Italian postcard, no. 388. Photo: Fontana.
Goddess of Justice
Nothing is known about Astrea’s dates of birth and death, nor her original name. Some say she was a Venetian countess originally, others claim she came from the circus, the last name of Barbieri is mentioned.
Amongst the various male forzuti or strongmen of Italian cinema of the late 1910s there were few female versions, but most have stayed unknown till recently, e.g. Linda Albertini, Ethel Joyce, Gisa-Liana Doria and Piera Bouvier.
Thanks to a print at the Milanese film archive of the film Justitia, Astrea WAS known, though her biography has remained as misty as the London fog.
Astrea’s name refers to a goddess of Justice in Greek mythology, who in the so-called Iron Age left Earth as it had become too criminal and debauched.
The film Astrea (so Justice returned to Earth) was a sturdy and sportive female athlete, defender of the weak and the fighter of crime, helped by her comical sidekick Polidor (Ferdinando Guillaume).
In her short career Astrea only made four films, all within the athletic-acrobatic genre of Italian silent film, but here combining it with comedy too.
Italian postcard, no. 252. Photo: Bettini, Roma.
Feeding her enemies bit by bit to the pigs
Astrea first acted in a rather heavy anti-Austrian propaganda film, La riscossa delle maschere/The rescue of the masks (Leopoldo Carlucci, 1919, though IMDb writes the director was Gustavo Zaremba de Jaracewski), co-starring Gian Paolo Rosmino.
In the film all Italian masks are reanimated by Astrea to rescue the Italians from the Austrians. The film was made after the defeat at Caporetto and was supposed to boost morale, but according to IMDb it was released after the war ended.
Astrea behaves like a real killer, drowning spies, feeding her enemies bit by bit to the pigs, with a violence and sadism unknown to her male competitors, mostly good-hearted giants.
In her next film Justitia (1920) the tone was much milder. The film was directed by Ferdinando Guillaume, while Astrea, Guillaume’s relatives and he himself acted in the film.
Astrea plays a double role of well-groomed and dressed princess, who cliché-like, is as well a retributive yet also big-hearted avenger, who protects a lovers’ couple hunted by the usual bad guys.
While the Italian press praised her as strong, athletic and lady-like at the same time, the British journal The Bioscope called her ‘a herculean woman with the defiance of a Houdini, a female knight roaming the world to set wrong situations right with the force of her muscles.'
Anyway, Justitia had a wide international distribution and was a big success, partly under the title 'Astrea'. With actor-director Ferdinando Guillaume, Astrea did two more films, L’ultima fiaba/The last fairy tale (1920) and I creatori dell’impossibile/The creators of the impossible (1922), presumably lost.
Vittorio Martinelli writes that the latter was a rather far-fetched farce, ‘so Countess B. retreated to the shadows, silently, leaving her crown of the queen of muscles, not permitting anybody to touch her privacy’.
NB. A French print titled 'Astrea' was found recently and shown at the 2010 Bologna festival Il Cinema Ritrovato; it might be L’ultima fiaba.
Sources: Alberto Farassino/Tatti Sanguineti (Gli uomini forti - Italian), Michele Giordano (Giganti buoni - Italian), and IMDb.