From film criticism to filmmaking:
La Cecilia by Jean-Louis Comolli and L’Olivier by Jean Narboni et al.

by Daniel Fairfax

In the summer of 1973, the writers at Cahiers du cinéma had reached a dead-end. Their project of developing a Marxist-oriented film theory and critical practice was exhausted. Despite the impressive theoretical work of the years preceding this moment—which yielded key texts such as “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” (“Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”), “Technique et idéologie” (“Technique and Ideology”) and “La Suture” (“Cinema and Suture”), among others—their turn towards a Maoist orientation from late 1971 onwards was proving less fecund. In a broader political climate of decline for the far left in France, Cahiers’ attempt to forge a “revolutionary cultural front” ended in disheartening failure: the gathering intended to launch the front held at Avignon in August 1973, into which the Cahiers team had poured their efforts over the course of a year, drew a meager turnout, and discussions at the event descended into sectarian mud-slinging between rival Maoist groupuscules.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Jean-Louis Comolli, who had been editor at Cahiers since 1965, has reflected on the sentiment of dejection prevailing among the journal’s core group of contributors at the time:

“We emerged from the failure of the Revolutionary Cultural Front bruised and bloodied. Afterwards, we met in a bar one evening, we looked at each other, and without needing to say much at all, we all profoundly understood that our will to continue this project had been broken” (Fairfax).

Although he and Jean Narboni had by that point relinquished their official title of editors-in-chief in favor of a less hierarchical editorial collective, the two senior figures at Cahiers nonetheless felt they were “morally and politically responsible for the situation”; and so they chose to decisively withdraw from the journal, leaving it in the hands of their younger colleagues Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana.

The history of Cahiers since its near-demise is widely known: surviving the turbulent period of the 1970s, the monthly journal continues to appear to the present day. Less well-charted, however, is the subsequent fate of Comolli and Narboni themselves after decamping from an entity with which they had been closely associated since the early 1960s. Notably, both figures shifted their attentions to filmmaking in the years immediately following their departure. Comolli directed his first fiction feature La Cecilia (1976), based on a 19th century commune of Italian anarchists in Brazil, while Narboni became a key participant in a filmmaking collective based out of the Paris-VIII university at Vincennes, which would make L’Olivier (The Olive Tree, 1976), an essayistic documentary on the Palestinian independence movement.

Of course, moving from writing about cinema to making it was already a time-honored tradition at Cahiers. The core of the French New Wave was drawn from the journal’s ranks, while numerous other critics have used their time at Cahiers as a springboard for becoming a director. In the case of both Comolli’s and Narboni’s projects, however, they decisively repudiated and subjected to critique the auteurist model of filmmaking so stridently championed by the earlier Cahiers writers, premised on the near-demiurgic powers of a master-director. Instead, the two films are pervaded by a collaborative ethos—no less present in Comolli’s work, despite the singular authorial signature of La Cecilia, than in Narboni’s film, co-signed with five other participants. Such an emphasis on collective intellectual labor represents one of the key legacies for these two figures of the Cahiers project, with its own radical decomposition of individualized approaches to writing on cinema in the years 1968-1973.

Undeniably, much separates the two film projects: most notably, they straddle either side of the fiction/documentary divide (although both films will, in various ways, interrogate the validity of this cleavage). Furthermore, whereas La Cecilia takes a historically remote incident for its narrative focus, coming close to the genre of the “period drama.” L’Olivier is preoccupied with intervening in a particularly thorny contemporary political issue. Yet the parallels between the two films are far-reaching. This common ground was symbolized by the fact that the films were both released in cinemas at the same time (early 1976), and were discussed at length in the same issue of Cahiers (no. 264, February 1976).

Moreover, both La Cecilia and L’Olivier critically engage with the tradition of militant filmmaking and the broader question of the relation between politics and cinema, which had been an evident focus for Cahiers du cinéma in the period between 1968 and 1973. Coming in a moment of downturn in the fortunes of the French far left, however, this shared undertaking would diverge from many of the precepts of political filmmaking that had dominated Comolli and Narboni’s own thinking in their time at the journal. Such a disjunction colored much of the contemporaneous critical reception that the two films garnered upon their release. However, in retrospect, the two projects appear as important stepping stones in the broader development of two of the most significant people in postwar film theory.

La Cecilia

Comolli often says his decision to tackle the historical experience of the Cecilia colony, conceived and piloted by the prominent Italian anarchist Giovanni Rossi, came as a direct result of the foundering of the Cahiers project. The film’s genesis, however, dates to well before this moment: an initial screenplay for La Cecilia was completed in collaboration with Eduardo de Gregorio in late 1971.[2] Moreover, although he now considers La Cecilia to be his “first real film” (Lleó), Comolli actually had a reasonable level of experience in filmmaking. He had been responsible for television programs on Pierre Perrault and Miklos Jancsó, a documentary on the June 1968 French legislative elections (Les Deux Marseillaises, co-directed with André S. Labarthe) and two short fiction films.[3]

Nonetheless, La Cecilia was to be Comolli’s first fiction feature, and represented—in both aesthetic and logistical terms—a breakthrough for the budding filmmaker. One of a large number of socialist communes founded in the Americas by European émigrés in the 19th century, La Cecilia was founded by Rossi and ten other colonists in Brazil in April 1890. Despite expanding to a population of around 150 with the arrival of the original settlers’ families, the colony collapsed within four years, and Rossi returned to Italy.

Trained in agricultural science, Rossi considered the commune to have been a successful preliminary “experiment.” In his view, despite the class and educational differences of its members and despite the material hardship involved in building a sustainable social unit from scratch, La Cecilia proved that communal, non-hierarchical living was indeed possible in modern-day society. Although La Cecilia was often riven with personality clashes and other contradictions, its inhabitants “led an existence that overflowed with vitality, that trembled with excitement,” and Rossi, who wrote a book on the experience, insisted that physical violence never broke out during the colony’s existence (Dossier, 39).

Despite Rossi’s unabated optimism, the initial version of Comolli’s project was guided by a critique of, in his words:

“what we called at the time (1971), in a rather condescending fashion, [...] the ‘anarchizing tendencies of the intellectual petty-bourgeoisie’” (“Présentation,” 76).

Significantly, Comolli’s critique of Rossi’s “revolution in a small circle” had already been aired by other Italian anarchists at the time of the commune’s existence, and in the final film Rossi will even read aloud an opinion article in the anarchist newspaper Critica soziale accusing him of dilettantism.

Moreover, as Comolli’s project progressed, its critical target changed in nature, a “displacement” related to the shift in Cahiers’ political orientation over the course of 1972. From this point on, the film would interrogate the broader question of the revolutionary intellectual’s role in class struggle. Or as Comolli puts it:

“The negative character changed: it is no longer Rossi the anarchist (and through him the negative nature of anarchism), but Rossi the theorist, the master of the experiment who arranges matters so as not to be at risk. It is not only politics [...] that Rossi represses, but also the discourse and the body of the other, the desire of the other, about which he wants to know nothing” (idem.).

Perhaps Comolli had always been attracted to the material due to its resonance with his own experience in the theoretical and political cauldron that was the Cahiers team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is, the journal was cut off, to a large degree, from broader political struggles, and it obsessively focused on internal disputes and the clarification of its “line.” But once he had detached himself from the journal, La Cecilia much more tangibly acquired the status of an allegory for Comolli’s period at Cahiers. Looking at the work retrospectively, Comolli acknowledges that

“in truth, the subject, or the theme, of the film was concealed, since it was really a film which spoke about what had happened in the Cahiers group in the months beforehand” (Fairfax).

He even avows, “You can recognize several characters from Cahiers in La Cecilia” (Lleó).

While it would be relatively unproductive to pinpoint the characters he is referring to, it is evident that the figure of Giovanni Rossi is a cipher for Comolli and Narboni’s position within Cahiers, having voluntarily dissolved their privileged status as editors-in-chief into a broader collective grouping at the time of the journal’s radicalization.[4]

Indeed, the question of leadership within far left movements is of fundamental importance in the film. As instigator of the commune and its theoretical driving force, Giovanni Rossi cannot help but play a role as leader, but he remains a character who refuses this role through what Comolli calls “an admirable excess of historical awareness” (Fairfax). At crucial junctures, however, La Cecilia needs leadership, and it is here that Rossi will abrogate his responsibilities to the group he had founded, preferring to play the role of external observer in a manner befitting his scientific background.

More broadly, the film’s dynamic is generated by the intersection of external historical forces and contradictions internal to the commune. Here it is noteworthy that even the very establishment of La Cecilia was marked by a curious paradox. After reading of Rossi’s earlier attempt at forging an agricultural commune in Italy, the Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II granted a tract of land in the south of the country to Rossi’s group. This contradiction—an anarchist collective owed its existence to the whims of an interventionist monarch—would be key to Comolli’s treatment of the events at La Cecilia.

But in his account of the experience, Rossi himself is silent about the nature of the commune’s establishment. For the filmmaker, indeed, it is precisely those aspects of La Cecilia existence “censored” by Rossi which form the “motor elements” of the film’s narrative. Crucially, in Comolli’s view,

“what Rossi does not see is history, the historical determinations of his time, his present; that is, in the last analysis, the economic and political contradictions in which his project is caught” (“Présentation,” 72).

In La Cecilia, then, history functions not as an “absolute outside, a master-reference,” but as a “causal outside, an outside within the inside, which acts on it, determines it and transforms it in the very process of being repressed by it” (idem.).

Thus, the film is punctuated by incursions of outside history into the enclosed world of the Cecilia commune, frequently depicted through the use of framing and scenographic composition. For example, when Rossi and a fellow communard, Rocco, venture to a general store to buy supplies, they are met with hostility and aloofness from the store-owner and local customers, who see Italian migrants as an unwelcome threat to their standard of living. This economic contradiction
forms not only part of the plot—the storeowner sets unfair prices for the two communards—but also the spatial construction of the scene. As a caption in Cahiers puts it:

“The two universes are hermetically sealed from one another, there is no communication apart from the exchange or purchase of domestic products; hence, there are no common visual codes. Nobody is worthy of a look, nobody is seen by anybody else” (Cahiers no. 264, 47).

Similarly, news of the emperor’s overthrow and the installation of a republic in Brazil reaches the commune by a Portuguese-speaking messenger boy who interrupts a dinner celebrating May 1. Later, when the group pays a collective visit to the governor’s house to discuss the revocation of their title deed to the property at La Cecilia, the contrast between the communards and the functionary they address is multiply connoted. Their working-class dress and impassioned diction stand in contrast to the stiff formality of the bureaucrat who receives them, while their ebullient gestures and movements perpetually spill out over the boundaries of a scenic space that can barely contain them.

It is at this point, however, that the internal contradictions within the group burst out into the open. With Rossi traveling to Italy to give lectures on free love and the abolition of the family, and thus unavailable for guidance, a mass meeting is called to discuss the situation facing the commune. A sharp division arises between those who insist that a vote be taken on sending the group’s proletarian members to a government road-building unit in order to pay off La Cecilia’s debt to the new republic, and those—led by Luigi, who throughout the film embodies an unwavering, purist attachment to the ideals of libertarian anarchism—who see this as the onset of an insidious form of “parliamentarism.” No political common ground exists between the two groups. They are shown facing off against each other from either side of a visual chasm.

From this point on, the commune will be divided along class lines: alternating scenes show those from a peasant background remaining to till the land, while the proletarians and intellectuals perform menial work for the state.

Luigi, the commune’s most ideologically intransigent resident, recites a text by Bakunin to a comrade. Male proletarian members of the group are made to work on road-building details in order to pay off the commune’s debts to the state. The alienated nature of this work is palpable, and diametrically opposed to the joyous freedom of La Cecilia’s collective labor.

Such a division of labor is deepened by the arrival of the settlers’ families in the third part of the film. To the earlier exacerbation of class distinctions is added a restoration within La Cecilia of the bourgeois family, seen by the real-life Rossi as the most formidable impediment to the advent of socialism. While the commune is now materially more secure—its members sleep in large wooden cabins rather than out in the open—it is also more prone to petty squabbling and selfish behavior, as the collective is progressively segregated into smaller family groupings. Rossi, however, is inattentive to these issues, and matters come to a head when Luigi is seen with the peasant Tullio’s daughter Angela. The subsequent stand-off results in the departure of a large number of families, leaving behind a small core of members to rebuild the commune.

Luigi’s liaison with Tullio’s daughter Angela leads to a potentially violent conflagration within the group, and the departure of most of the families.

As the remaining members of the commune take stock of their experience, the settlement burns in the background.

The most overt use of screen space to depict the pressures to which the group is subject, however, comes at the end of La Cecilia. In high spirits, the group stages a reading of Georg Büchner’s play Dantons Tod.[5] Significantly, Luigi plays the character of Robespierre, while Rossi has no role per se, instead whispering lines from the text for all the characters—a function symbolic of his relationship to the commune. The intellectual Lorenzini, meanwhile, is given the role of a sans-culotte (a lower-class, radical militant during the French Revolution). He declaims, at one point, the revolutionary catch-cry “in the name of the law, there is no law.”[6] The others applaud the uncompromising sentiment of the phrase, but Rossi himself stops and looks off-screen. A slow lateral pan reveals—by means of an “irruption of the hors-champ [off-screen space]” (Cahiers no. 264, 49)—an officer from the republican army standing in the doorway. He informs the inhabitants of La Cecilia that they have been conscripted to quash a nearby rebellion and will be escorted to military headquarters in one hour’s time. The group is crestfallen, their dream of an anarchist utopia has been snuffed out by the repressive state apparatus, but it is Luigi—not, pointedly, Rossi—who has the last word:

“Italy? Why not? Brazil? Why not? Anywhere is fine... But not here. Not like this. Our place is no longer here. There are other things to do.”

La Cecilia’s final scene: the group performs a spirited recital of Dantons Tod by Georg Büchner.

At this point, the Brazilian state’s forces of order enter from the hors-champ, with the intention of shutting down the commune and conscripting its men.

Luigi, dressed as Robespierre, has the last word in the film. The commune will be abandoned.

Theater as the “dislocation” of the cinematic fiction. Emperor Dom Pedro receives Rossi during a staging of Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi. The scene serves as a prologue to the film.

That La Cecilia should end on a theatrical scene was a deliberate move by the filmmaker, and formally rhymes with the film’s opening moments, in which Rossi meets Dom Pedro during the intermission of a performance of Nabucco in Milan. Here the two characters are framed within a “proscenium arch” formed by the royal box’s entrance. The film is thus bookended by allusions to the theater, which, Comolli claims, should be viewed as the

“toppling over of fiction, as the superposition, dislocation [décalage] or unhinging of two representations (the filmic scene and the theatrical scene), one on top of the other, one against the other” (Dossier, 104).

A similar bifurcation of the scene is produced within the shot itself through the use of depth of field. The deep-focus lenses used by Comolli in production yielded images whose multiple layers possessed equal visual clarity. Building on a theoretical discussion already adumbrated in “Technique et idéologie” in 1971, Comolli rejects Bazin’s notion that this technique reinforces the “realism” of the cinematic image. Instead, it “theatricalizes the shot,” denouncing the cinematic image as an artificial construction, most notably through the production of a “lateral-vertical decentering of the ‘subjects’” (“Présentation,” 78).

More than a mere “montage within the shot,” such an image offers a

“re-inscription of theatrical space and duration, [...] where the performance [jeu] of the actors involves an interplay with the other actors and the elements of the decor, and where the bodies are always captured within a given space and time” (idem.).

Certainly, La Cecilia is replete with striking depth-of-field compositions, and these are frequently combined with roaming, Jancsóesque long-takes, including one majestic shot early in the film that lasts nearly seven minutes. Formal inventiveness is also evident on the level of sound, where frequent bursts of anarchist song contrapuntally punctuate the film’s diegesis,[7] as well as in La Cecilia’s lacunary, decentered narrative structure.

Nonetheless, whether these innovations represented a significant challenge to the formal conventions of mainstream filmmaking, as had been advocated by Comolli during his time at Cahiers, was a disputed question. Writing for rival film journal Image et son, André Cornand states,

“To say that La Cecilia breaks with the habitual working methods, just as it shatters the narrative, to say that it departs from the habitual codes of cinematic representation, amounts to either being ignorant of the cinema or to displaying a certain contempt for everything that has been made in the last few years” (76).[8]

From an English perspective, Alison Smith will tentatively agree with this claim, writing that Comolli’s chosen aesthetic strategy is “rather a disappointment, or at least a strange compromise, and unadventurous in comparison with the ideals [...] Comolli praised in his theoretical work” (26).[9]

Of further concern for Smith, and in this she echoed earlier reservations aired during an interview with Comolli by the magazine Ciné-Tracts after a poorly received screening of his film during a conference in Milwaukee, is the representation of women in La Cecilia (Smith, 26-29; Burnett/Vitone, 46).[10] For most of the film, the only female inhabitant of the colony is Olimpia, who is presented in an idealized, Milletian manner as a paragon of swarthy beauty. She forms the object of desire for a number of the colonists, including Rossi himself, who embarks on an “experiment in free love” with her that consumes much of the latter half of La Cecilia.[11] In contrast to Rossi’s abstract intellectualism, Olimpia embodies an intuitive instinct for the tenets of anarchism, and the portrayal of her character was viewed by many of those in the Milwaukee audience as sexist and outdated. There is certainly some justification to this viewpoint, and it should be noted that a feminist approach to film criticism was never adequately developed by Cahiers during Comolli’s time with the journal. Comolli, however, contested the notion that his film was sexist, claiming that the audience in question exhibited “a profound lack of understanding of how the image functions” by reading the character on a purely psychological level, rather than as a “logical sign” (Burnett/Vitone, 46).

Olimpia, the only major female character in the film, is depicted in an idealized, quasi-mythological manner. ... ... Comolli inscribes her figure within the codes of 19th-century painting’s depictions of women.

A pictorial resonance with the paintings of Jean-François Millet, can also be discerned in other scenes.

Much of the latter half of the film is taken up by the “experimental” relationship between Rossi and Olimpia, which develops in spite of Olimpia’s earlier attachment to another character, Alfredo.

The reception the film garnered on the pages of Cahiers itself was decidedly more enigmatic. While space was given to Comolli to elucidate the principles behind La Cecilia, the film also inspired three reviews—by Serge Toubiana, Serge Daney and Pascal Kané—which all seem to be written in a kind of private code: overtly speaking about the film at the same time as covertly discussing their earlier experiences with Comolli at the journal. Toubiana, for instance, writes about the “trauma” provoked by the group’s “encounter with the real” (43), while Daney begins his review with the statement:

“There is a phrase that one never hears in La Cecilia. ‘I told you so! I said that things would end badly, that it couldn’t succeed’” (52).

Kané, meanwhile, stresses the importance of play (le jeu) in Comolli’s film (21-24); when looking back retrospectively at the film, this is also the aspect of the film that the director himself emphasizes. Although he used professional actors, the nature of the shoot led to a jubilant spirit of freedom and improvisation reigning on the set, such that, in Comolli’s view, “the little troupe of actors and technicians unwittingly became a homologue to the pioneers of this anarchist commune” (Corps et cadre, 353).

In the process, Comolli’s own position as director was transformed, to the extent that he came to see all the participants, himself included, as equal collaborators on the project. This was partly, he retrospectively claims, an unforeseen consequence of his own inexperience on set:

“I was the young rookie—although I was nearly 40—in a film where I did not comprehend what was going on, with actors who I could not understand (in reality, they directed me, rather than vice versa)” (Fairfax).

After completing La Cecilia, Comolli would turn to a more conventional fiction film with L’Ombre rouge in 1981, but since then his filmmaking has largely focused on documentary work, yielding a corpus of more than 40 films. His experiences of improvisational cinema when making La Cecilia, however, have been formative for his later documentary films. In fact Comolli refuses to make a clear-cut distinction between the two forms: just as every fiction film can be viewed through a documentary lens, so too does every documentary possess its share of theatricality and artificiality. Moreover, the history of anarchist politics has been a long-term preoccupation for Comolli, and has yielded the film Buenaventura Durruti, anarchiste (1999) and an unmade project on Paris Commune leader Louise Michel. And yet Comolli has never fully identified as an anarchist, stating he is “not a partisan, not even a fellow traveller” of the movement (Voir et pouvoir, 467).

Instead, his attraction comes from another affinity: that between anarchist politics and the cinema itself. For Comolli, anarchism’s contradiction between “the logic of the individual and the logic of the group, between singularity and collectivity, evokes the matter, the fuel, of cinematic narrative” (468). Discerning this kinship, then, is perhaps the true legacy of La Cecilia for Comolli’s later, theoretically inflected filmmaking practice.