How to Film History: An Interview with Jean-Louis Comolli about La Cecilia

Rosa Lleó

Tags: Artists at Work

Artists at Work / 05.03.2009
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At the end of the nineteenth century Brazil was governed by Emperor Pedro II, a ruler fascinated by ideas of progress and sovereignty. Pedro II implemented new models of society and free government, drawing from those proposed by communists and anarchists at the time. During a trip to Italy in the 1880s – also hoping to position Brazil closer to Europe – he invited the Italian anarchist Giovanni Rossi to use some land in the deserted fields in southern Brazil for a social experiment in collectivism. Rossi accepted the proposition and in 1890 founded the Colonia Cecilia, a project that – with a public school and governing assembly – lasted for four years, sustained by a (not very successful) agricultural system. The Colonia ultimately disintegrated in 1894, due primarily to a boycott from the landlords who surrounded the community and certain internal ideological discrepancies. In 1889, under the newly instituted Republic of the United States of Brazil, they lost the emperor’s concession and were obliged to buy the land in order to continue using it.

This is the story told in Rossi’s memoirs, called 'Un episodio d’amore a la Colonia Cecilia' ('A Love Story at the Colonia Cecilia', 1893), which became a legendary song amongst anarchist circles in Italy.

All film stills from Jean-Louis Comolli La Cecilia, 1975. © Filmoblic C.E.C.R.T (Paris) / Saba Cinematographica (Rome). DVD 123 min, still. Courtesy Doriane Films

In 1975, the film theorist Jean-Louis Comolli decided to rescue this episode of history, with a film that constituted a collective experiment in itself: La Cecilia. The film utilised a number of motifs then current in film-making practice: There are no descriptive or contemplative moments in the film. The different characters speak mainly through quotations from a range of militant discourses. When the characters are not giving speeches, they sing popular or anarchist songs. Music replaces regular dialogue. The sound in the film is directly recorded from the characters. It synchronises time with the body, inscribing the body into the words, as happens in theatre. The film resembles the constant recording of a theatre play, while an experience of community is constituted behind the scenes.

More than thirty years later, Doriane Films has released La Cecilia on DVD, and I became interested in gaining a deeper understanding of that project, which has become as legendary and obscured as the real community.

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Rosa Lleó: I can only vaguely remember how I came across the story of La Cecilia. It was while travelling by car from Brazil to Argentina, through the fields of Paraná and Rio Grande do Sul, that I found out that the territory of those regions had been the settlement of numerous self-selected communities since the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, the only remaining ones belong to an ethno-religious group of Russian Mennonites. I was interested in the way they were organised and their relation with the Brazilian government. It took me a long time and research to discover that the same area had been the site of the Colonia Cecilia that Rossi talks about. What is your story behind the film? Maybe the community was better known in the 1970s, when there was more interest in alternative ways of life.

Jean-Louis Comolli: The Colonia Cecilia was completely unknown, at least in France at that time. I found about it because I was very interested in the anarchist movement, and I was reading and compiling some original texts and songs. I collected records that had militant songs and discourses, asking friends to get them to me from abroad. I got some records from Italy, and in one of them there was a song called 'La Cecilia'. I thought that there might be an interesting story behind it. I got in touch with the Argentinian filmmaker Eduardo de Gregorio, who lived in Italy and we began researching it, and soon we found Rossi’s writings and started to work on them. My main idea was to film on site, to go to Brazil and look for somewhere like the original location of the community. Being very naive, we asked for permission from the government; there was a military dictatorship at the time and, of course, we were rejected. They asked us why we wanted to make a story about something that never existed. Very disappointed, I decided to go to Argentina, to the state of Misiones, which borders with Brazil, and has a similar landscape and people. But the producers started to feel anxious because of the political instability, which some months later led again to a dictatorship. So finally we decided to go and film in Europe – in Italy, very close to Rome.


RL: The film La Cecilia narrates an unknown historic episode. You were editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers de Cinéma from 1968 to 1973, and afterwards you released La Cecilia, which, though a fictional work, you consider the starting point for your subsequent career in documentary cinema. Could you speak more about this progression?

JLC: I consider La Cecilia my first real film. Due to the fact that we had neither money for production nor experience, we worked in a way that was closer to what happens when you work in theatre.

We ended up working, in fiction, with specific conditions that are distant from industrial production. The actors were enthusiasts and turned up every day; when they were not acting they were watching or giving their opinion, which turned us into a sort of small community. There was a lot of freedom and improvisation, and this freedom is what I was searching for later with documentary cinema – which is not possible in fictional films with professional actors. Everyone proposed new changes, they argued collectively about the scenes; it was an experience that, unintentionally, reflected the idea and the project of the film. The way the project was written activated something within the cast and crew. This happened more or less by chance and influenced me deeply, determining my way of working in the future. The cinematographic gesture changed the existential conditions. I understood that the cinematic act organises something in the world somehow.

RL: All the characters are equally important: they are types of jobs (the architect, the veterinarian, the peasant) and origins (the northern Italian, the Sicilian, the Roman), creating an allegory of the perfect society. You speak in the introduction to the DVD of the film as a 'choral film with a collective body'. Could you talk about the links that are created between anarchy and cinema?

JLC: Historically, the relationship between the individual and the collective has been crucial to anarchist theory. How do you constitute good and responsible individuals who are politically autonomous and, at the same time, work together collectively?

I wanted to address that issue in the film, but thought if there was a resolution, it should not only be psychological. In theatre, we know about the thoughts of the characters by their actions. In La Cecilia, the characters were determined by their movements and gestures, and not by their supposed depth. I wanted also to point out the fact that Rossi’s memories are divided into two parts: one is the collective experience at the Colonia (what I would call the rational) and the other is called 'A Free Love Experience at the Colonia Cecilia', which is separated and constitutes Rossi’s subconscious – a sort of his personal erotic phantom. It is as if they were made by two different people, as if the anarchist philosopher could not be disturbed with mundane feelings. There is a deep rupture between the scientific experiment and his individual free love episode. He tries, without success, to be the master of both.

RL: In a context where there is supposed to be no authority figure.

JLC: Yes, how to do with the question of authority in an anarchist context? This is a question that troubles deeply the whole movement. The anarchists have an incomplete answer, and this is what I found interesting.

To try and answer it, I looked at the last period that I worked at Les Cahiers du Cinéma, which was my experience immediately preceding the filming of La Cecilia. During those five years [1968–73], the Cahiers group notoriously produced a large number of collective texts. We had been part of the events of May '68; there were very strong personal relations among us; and finally we faced the failure of the ultra-leftist period. Until that moment, I had dedicated myself only to writing, but I decided to retire and work on making films. While I was working there, it was a moment when the figure of the maître was eroding. Jacques Rivette had left, and I became editor-in-chief. Though I assumed the role of leader, the team of Cahiers was already led by itself – we were all leaders in our own way and we had different ways of working. I felt the necessity to collaborate with someone, so I appointed Jean Narboni as co-editor; he was older and more experienced, so I offered him my post. He refused, and that was a gesture that destabilised the whole group – like him, no one else wanted to assume the role of being leader. We were Maoists and did not want to risk transgressing our ideas. So we decided to suppress the role of editor-in-chief, and although it was difficult, we started to take all decisions together. And that was what nourished the film, actually; you can recognise several characters from Les Cahiers in La Cecilia.

RL: In the last scene of the film, the characters form a tableau of Georg Büchner’s 'Danton’s Death', just before an officer arrives to the community and tells them that they need to leave their land. You insert a scene inside another; it is very interesting how the theatre breaks the fiction by doubling it, and the actors become spectators. It is a very powerful and dramatic scene, which determines the end of the film and connects different periods in the history of anarchism.

JLC: 'I declare the Law that there’s no law!' This sentence has an extraordinary violence, and I wanted to use it to emphasise the relationship between theatre and politics in history. But apart from that, the fact that the outcome of the community was a failure, and that the majority of the members ended up as workers in big companies or dying while fighting against the government, made me think of something different. I wanted to look for an end that went beyond that somehow, and continued the dream towards the non-real. The sinking of the utopia, as such an end would have been, was difficult, and I did not want to represent such a conclusion. I tried to go a step further, turning the end of the Colonia Cecilia into a larger version of all stories of failed utopias.

RL: In relation to that, I would like to know your view on those artistic trends that look at our revolutionary past, and at the moment when it was possible to change real life. Most of the time they fail to become something more than merely nostalgic and formally appealing. What is your point of view on how to film history, considering you have always devoted your work to it with a political conscience? Two major examples could be La Cecilia, and your book Free Jazz/Black Power (1988) that talks about the relationship of free jazz with the black liberation movement in the United States.

JLC: The Soviet avant-gardes, for example, were supported by a mass movement. The artists were not alone – now the artistic gesture tends to be a detached gesture.
In the case of La Cecilia, its time coincided exactly with the end of the extreme left in Europe [1975]. The attitudes were changing; we could define that period as the restoration or the contra-revolution. The communitarian movement was growing weak and was questioned constantly.

One of the positive aspects about the film is that it awoke a subject that was at the beginning of its end, and that is for me one of the historic roles of cinema. Cinema arrives at the end. In order to avoid things disappearing, the cinema perpetuates them.

Giorgio Agamben talks about that in 'Notes on Gesture' (1992). At the end of the nineteenth century, one’s gestures related to their class, such as their manners and specific fashion choices, but this association was starting to disappear. Cinema comes to film the last glimpses of these class gestures in a parallel world of images. It is also interesting how the militant cinema films the workers' movement, just when the workers' fight is finishing. It inherits the ruins and recuperates a world that is disappearing.

C.E. Ruthenberg (1882—1927), founder of the American Communist Party said, 'our responsibility as revolutionaries is that of saving which is still in time to be saved; we are the real "conservatives"'.
Capitalism destroys and erases very fast, and the duty of cinema is to bring the interesting bits to light.


Jean-Louis Comolli is a film-maker and professor living in Paris. He was editor ofCahiers du Cinéma between 1962 and 1973. He currently teaches at the University Paris 8 (ECAV), the cinema school FEMIS and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona. He is also a current contributor to several magazines and journals and has published several books, notably Arret sur L’Histoire with Jacques Rancière (supplementaires, BPI Centre Pompidou, 1997) and Voir et Pouvoir (Verdier, 2004), work that compiles the essential of his writings from 1988.

— Rosa Lleó