La Cecilia
Anarchism vs. reality

by Reynold Humphries and
Geneviève Suzzoni

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 30-32
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Directed and co-scripted by Jean-Louis Comolli, one of the editors of Cahiers du cinéma, LA CECILIA is the account of the creation of a commune by Italian anarchists in Brazil in 1887. The film recounts the problems encountered by emphasizing the various contradictions at work: between the commune and the world outside, and inside the commune itself. (1)

For Giovanni Rossi, the man behind the experiment, La Cecilia is an attempt to put socialism into practice, but the very setting-up of the commune brings the first contradiction into play: permission is granted by the Emperor of Italy. Why should a monarchist be sympathetic to anarchism and socialism, both bent or the overthrow of everything he represents, as Giovanni makes clear in his meeting with the Emperor at the beginning of the film? It is around this question that many of the contradictions of the enterprise revolve.

After reading Giovanni’s book, A Socialist Commune, the Emperor makes his decision. (An interesting point is made here: He refers to the book as A Socialist Communion, thus introducing a religious note that is very important in the film.) Giovanni hesitates, than accepts. But what does this acceptance mean? A gift from a patron, and a capitalist monarchist one at that. For the Emperor may be willing to see a commune set up in Brazil; he considers it impossible in Italy.

By setting up a commune with the blessings of a capitalist sponsor, Giovanni and his fellow anarchists become colonialists, as the Brazilians refer to them and other groups who have settled there. They are free to run La Cecilia as they like, at the expense of the people of Brazil who have no say but whose land it is. Or rather, whose land it should be. For the order up till then has been feudal, although one feudal aspect is removed as the anarchists arrive: the slaves are freed. Giovanni and Rocco greet them as brothers, but one ex-slave (only the blacks are slaves) says, “They are your brothers,” pointing to another group of colonialists. This other group is working for somebody else, complete with overseer. One of them—they too are Italians, but not anarchists—thanks God and the saints for having work.

Giovanni is convinced that La Cecilia won't go this way. But he is faced at once with another blow to the concept of autonomy. The commune needs grain and tools, which have to be bought from a local Brazilian dealer. The dealer dictates the price, double what Giovanni and Rocco consider fair. Thus, exchange value on the capitalist market operates in Brazil, too, and it is applied equally to Italian anarchists. Giovanni is told to accept the price before it doubles. This advice comes from Brazilian merchants and landowners who were manifesting their dislike of “the colonialists” as Giovanni and Rocco entered the store. What the local capitalists wanted was labor; what they got was competition.

From the outset, therefore, the concept of autonomy is undermined. Comolli illustrates the nature of the undertaking in a magnificent sequence that follows immediately from the decision to come to Brazil. The anarchists move from the forest into a clearing. Close up of Giovanni, who closes his eyes, rubs them, then opens them. Cut to a shot of a misty valley, surrounded (as a slow pan shows) by high mountains. Giovanni’s action and the camera movement indicate only too clearly what La Cecilia will be and how the anarchists conceive it. It is a dream come true: Eldorado, the Promised Land, Paradise.

This Christian concept is crucial to the film, as already indicated. The members of the commune are really continuing old ways of thought masquerading as new ideas while believing they have made a complete break with the past. But for Marxists, there can be no question of a complete break. For that means acting as if the past had never happened and therefore has no influence on the present. The concept of the break—starting from scratch as if the past had never existed—is part of Christian mythology: purification via confession and redemption.

La Cecilia thus represents a haven, as the brilliant continuation of this sequence shows. In long, slow pan the camera circles the open glade, stopping periodically to watch the men at work. Then it stops and repeats the motion in reverse, circling the glade with Olimpia, the only woman in the group . She goes from man to man, giving them water. She is the mother figure, and La Cecilia is the womb to which the men wish to return, a sanctuary cut off from strife. Their unconscious prejudices hem them in, with La Cecilia becoming a self-perpetuating circle of misconceptions and misunderstood values.

Rocco, however, is quick to point out a contradiction: Do they have legal right to the land? Is it theirs? Do they have a contract? Giovanni replies that laws and property are notions to be fought and rejected. So Rocco retorts by asking about the other communes in the region. Are they run by anarchists? No. Do they have contracts? Yes. Then what about us? Silence from Giovanni, who has no answer to this contradiction. Why should La Cecilia be different from the other communes just because it’s run by anarchists? Where does its autonomy come from?

The major crisis comes with the overthrow of the Italian Emperor and the creation of a Republic. This creates a problem for the anarchists, for they owe the commune to the emperor. But one anarchist points out that the Republic is better, and they all chant, “Long live the Republic!” However, their response is not so much genuine as conditioned. They are responding to something they feel they ought to support. A further contradiction now faces them. The new government forces them to pay for their land. The anarchists find themselves in a situation that no talking or theorizing can resolve. To pay what they owe, they have to go and work for the state. This change of affairs is crucial in another way. From the point of view of the anarchists, it is a disaster, for their “autonomy” has gone. But where did it come from in the first place?

From the emperor, who granted them land in the best colonialist tradition. Thus, the commune came about at the expense of the Brazilian people. The overthrow of the emperor means the land is no longer there for the taking by plunder. From the point of view of the Brazilians, the coming to power of the Republic represents a social advance. The slaves have moved from a feudal society to being paid members of the proletariat—a massive gain. For the anarchists there is a regression. Therefore, when forced to work for the state, Luigi complains that he thought he had escaped from being a paid worker.

The capitalist division of labor and the concept of property are reflected within the commune. At first, all goes well, with everyone contributing according to his or her particular skill and knowledge to the well-being of the community as a whole. But the idyll is soon disrupted. The peasant anarchist is furious when his crops are destroyed by cattle. This prompts Luigi to denounce the peasant for referring to the crops as if they belonged to him alone. The carelessness that allowed the accident elicits from the intellectual anarchist, more clearly Marxist than the others, the remark that organization is needed. Luigi and the peasant make common cause to denounce him. For Luigi, organization = property.

The peasant has already been contrasted with the intellectual at the beginning of the film; the former is a Catholic, the latter an atheist. Thus the religious background is stressed again. It is the peasant who, much later, proposes that the land be divided up equally: the person who works will have enough, and the one who is lazy will go without. Thus the basic principles are jettisoned: “to each according to his needs” (socialism) becomes “to each according to his labor” (capitalism). The peasant’s philosophy is moral, not political. It is inherited from Christianity and the concept of the Fall: chased from Eden, Adam and Eve had to work. Those who work are favored; those who don't are punished. The links with capitalist ideology are patent. The capitalists cannot admit that unemployment and inflation are inherent in the system, so they must displace the blame for both onto the proletariat. If you are without work, it’s your own fault for being lazy; if prices rise, it’s your fault for asking for more money. Significantly, it is the peasant anarchist who leads the breakaway group that finally leaves the commune, taking with then what “belongs” to them.

The key factor behind this departure is, in fact, the basis of the contradiction that informs the text in a variety of ways: the ideology of the family. Giovanni returns to Italy to present the case of La Cecilia to sympathizers and opponents. The anarchists have been attacked for “deserting” Italy at a crucial time of proletarian uprising. This prompts the intellectual to furiously assert their support for the workers and their opposition to the monarchy (except when it is a case of accepting La Cecilia). When Giovanni returns, he brings the anarchists’ families with him. It is the beginning of the end.

There is a remarkable sequence in Italy in which Giovanni expounds on his theories before a small group of middle-class sympathizers. It is here that he denounces the family, a greater plague than any other to befall humankind. At the end of his speech, he is dutifully applauded. But who are these supporters, and what do they represent? As Giovanni talks, Comolli moves the camera slowly round the room. We see religious statues, paintings, family portraits and photos, trinkets there as signs to indicate nothing but social rank, everything contradicting what Giovanni is saying. The audience may go along with him in theory, but not in practice. Indeed, we can see in the strong religious elements contained in the statues and paintings a reinforcement of the ideology behind the emperor’s gift of La Cecilia: The reference to “Communion” instead of “Commune” was not a chance one.

During Giovanni’s speech, Comolli intercuts a shot of Olimpia and a young anarchist. She is reading Giovanni’s speech and fondling the young man. A second shot after Giovanni has finished talking has them lying in one another’s arms, having made love. (The position of their bodies, the young man’s unbuttoned trousers and the relationship between this insert and the previous one permit such a reading, based partly on cultural coding and on the network of related concepts set up by the film’s own textual activity.) Thus Olimpia practices the theory of free love outside the family, whereas Giovanni theorizes about it. This sequence by the waterfall is crucial for another reason. Earlier the young man had been sitting in the same place with Luigi, reading a theoretical essay by Giovanni. Luigi dismisses the concept of pure theory and points out the dangers of tyranny that stem from the intellectual’s belief in his superiority. In the case of Giovanni, one can certainly say that his behavior contrasts sharply with what he preaches. Thus, after a major fight about the destiny of the commune, he is seen sitting alone in the middle of a field, talking of the need for revolution to be made in contact with the masses. His contradictory status could not be made more clear.

This is most striking in Giovanni’s relations with Olimpia. Comolli includes three inserts of them together, no background perspective possible—just inserted shots. As the shots progress, so the camera moves closer and closer to the couple and Giovanni becomes more and more intimate with Olimpia. They discuss love, but Giovanni envisages their relationship on a personal basis, outside the context of La Cecilia. In contrast, Olimpia sees it as forming an integral part of a communal existence. For Giovanni, the situation calls for an individual self-critique. For Olimpia, other, far more important values are at stake—the education of the children and the place of children in La Cecilia.

On several occasions Olimpia is seen teaching the children; finally the mothers call them away. Olimpia, realizing that the ideology of the family has triumphed over that of the collectivity, tells Giovanni. But he is more interested in the personal questions surrounding Olimpia and himself and puts the mothers’ action second. Olimpia’s position is crucial. Early in the film, when she is teaching Tullio to read and write, they start discussing free love and he indicates an interest in her. She, in turn, asks him about his family, as he has shown a preference for family morality over free love. When he admits that he doesn't always miss his wife and children, she points out his contradictory position: a belief in the family and all it entails, but a desire to break out from time to time.

The arrival of the families means the triumph of order and respect, as Luigi points out. Thus, one father demands respect from his children, and one family all rise when the father comes to the table. He is served, says grace, and then the meal begins. Thus, the ideology of the family in a patriarchal society, underpinned by that of Christianity, reigns supreme. This is despite the presence around the walls of the supposedly communal dining hall of posters calling on women and children to free themselves, but in the dining hall each family sits alone, separated from the others and from bachelors like Luigi.

Here, again, Olimpia is in the forefront of the ideological struggle. Anarchists have fought for women’s rights, she says, but in words only. Luigi, too, plays a vital role in this context. He is having an affair with the daughter of one member of the group, a fact which gives rise to gossip among the women. There is a single shot that highlights beautifully the contradictory and mutually exclusive ideologies at work in La Cecilia. In the foreground the children are singing and dancing in a circle. Having been removed from Olimpia’s influence, they are now reduced to fulfilling the “typical” children’s role. Their dance not only takes up that of the anarchists on hearing that their families are coming to live with them, where they all danced in a circle, but also takes up the long camera movement at the very beginning, with the future commune described as a self-contained circle.

It might be profitable to pause here briefly before discussing the crucial final sequence in order to stress some key concepts of the film. What is so important is Comolli’s rejection of the ideology of individualism as purveyed by the discourse of the dominant cinema, particularly that of the status of the hero and his self-sufficiency. Thus, it is never a question of showing one member of the commune always being right at the expense of another or the others. The point lies elsewhere. The contradictions lie not in the clash between what one individual thinks and does, or even in the personal clash between one member and another, but in the discrepancy between what La Cecilia as a group effort is and what it is meant to stand for.

Each of the individual members is used to highlight one particular contradiction inherent in the anarchist experience, never seen by itself but as part of the enterprise as a whole. Thus, after the families have all left (except one where the husband refuses to go), the collective spirit reasserts itself. But the contradictions do not disappear into the night with the individual families. They were there from the very start and come to the surface again in the remarkable last sequence.

The final sequence of LA CECILIA is a staging by the remaining anarchists of Buchner’s play Danton’s Death, with Luigi as Robespierre, who represented the most extreme and advanced form of the revolution, the taking of power by the people. One anarchist plays a role in which he makes a speech calling for more deaths so that the blood of the aristocrats will assuage the thirst and hunger of the people. The only law is the “will of the people.” But this assumes a general and total revolutionary situation, which was certainly not the case in Brazil in 1890 (and there is no doubt that the play serves to indicate the mood and beliefs of the anarchists). The members of the commune are going too fast, for once again they are neglecting to take the outside world into consideration. As if to remind them of this, a soldier enters and tells them they have been mobilized to help the Republic put down a rebellion in the region. Although the nature of the rebellion is not specified, it is safe to assume that reactionary forces in favor of feudalism are attempting to reinstate a pre-Republican situation. The real importance of the interruption of the soldier, however, lies elsewhere.

The outside is now inside, and the anarchists don't like it. They refuse to fight for anyone and, anyway, they're Italians. The soldier replies, “In Italy you're Italians. In Brazil you're Brazilians.” The final impasse. No socialist can deny this truth, for one of the basic tenets of socialism is an opposition to petty nationalism and racial antagonism purveyed by capitalism to divide its victims. The attitude of the soldier is a progressive one: here we're all Brazilians, irrespective of race, color and creed. Even Olimpia cannot accept this. Even Olimpia cannot surmount this, the final contradiction, for to surmount it means to realize that the entire concept of an anarchist commune is a contradiction. But Luigi understands: La Cecilia is finished. If they stay, they're mobilized and have to accept the collapse of the ideology of the commune. He sees that they've made a mistake, that they must reinsert themselves into history and play a role, instead of just being passive.

Luigi faces the anarchists with their inherent contradictions, and then the screen goes black, as if a door had suddenly closed, a curtain fallen on the stage. These are precisely the framing devices Comolli has used from the first image of LA CECILIA. A door opens and we enter an antechamber where Giovanni awaits to be introduced to the emperor. Clapping is heard, for it is the intermission of a play. Giovanni meets the emperor in the royal box; the curtain is down, waiting to rise again. As Comolli has pointed out in his presentation of the film in Cahiers du cinema, 262/63, the curtain is about to rise on the stage of history upon which the actions of LA CECILIA (1975) and of La Cecilia (1887-1890) are to be played out.

From the onset, therefore, Comolli inserts not only the events portrayed in his film but the very film itself—how these events are portrayed—into the process of history, from which no person or act is exempt. It is significant, therefore, that the film should close with a play, that the final technical device (a blackout) should complete the process generated by the opening door, and that the sequence in Italy where Giovanni gives his talk should be presented in exactly the same manner as the sequence that opens the film (except that the door is now open, for the process is underway). Similarly, after the families leave La Cecilia, Comolli includes a shot of the remaining anarchists huddled together silently in the field, a shot taken from inside through a partially open/closed door. This particular historical process is coming to an end, with both film, and events described. The curtain will soon rise on another stage. It is perhaps of interest to point out here that the very sudden blackout at the end functions in the same way for the spectators as the irruption of the soldier for the anarchists: it returns them to reality.

The role of history is central to LA CECILIA. One could say indeed that the enterprise of the commune was doomed, not because anarchism is incapable of interpreting history but because, long before Giovanni had his idea, the people to be involved were already products of history. Exposed from birth to an ideology, they come to: reject, but that nevertheless leaves its mark in their unconscious, the anarchists build a commune from which all contradictions and strife are to be eliminated. But history is built on just such forces. By cutting themselves off from the outside world, the anarchists transposed into the heady climate of La Cecilia the unconscious prejudices and ideologies inherited from Italy. Religion, the family, the division between capital and labor and between manual and intellectual labor all triumph in the end, despite moments of lucidity from individual members of the commune, because the anarchists as a collectivity deny history its role.


1. The co-scriptwriter is Marianne Di Vettimo. a native Italian speaker who also assisted Comolli in directing the film for language reasons. Comolli insisted on making the film in Italian, for how people speak and in what language is part of their historical role. Because language is part of the body, he used stage actions, accustomed by their presence on stage to emphasizing this function of language.