Cinéma du Réel 2023 review: Ciompi (Agnès Perrais)

“Strongly political, Ciompi works best when it actively connects the two uprisings it portrays.”

Bridging six centuries of working-class struggle, Agnès Perrais’ sophomore documentary feature Ciompi attempts to connect a worker uprising in Florence’s 14th century textile industry with striking migrant workers in the same industry and the same city today. While not completely successful in giving insight beyond a ‘history repeats itself’ narrative, Ciompi at the very least paints, when taken into a broader context, the class struggle between haves and have-nots and the unionization of workers as phenomena that are not recent and in fact have existed as long as there has been industrialization and the exploitation of the working classes. As much an activist statement as it is a documentary on a fight for workers’ rights, Ciompi‘s interesting visual approach makes it a timeless document, if the history it connects to the present doesn’t already do so. Though, perhaps fortunately, those fights for one’s rights were decidedly more deadly half a millennium ago.

Florence, the late 1370s. Seeing the power and influence of their city under an ostensibly democratic rule only change hands between a few influential patrician families every few years, the workers in Florence’s thriving wool industry start demanding a seat at the table. Starting one of the first workers’ uprisings in Europe, the Ciompi (a word likely coming from the French term for ‘comrade’, which in itself has socialist connotations since the early 20th century) were unrepresented in the Florentine government as they were not members of any of the guilds that made up said government. Amid dissatisfaction over having to surrender to oligarchical rule, an imposed heavy tax became the spark that ignited the powder keg. A violent takeover of the Florentine government resulted in the creation of three new guilds and the Ciompi effectively taking over control of the city’s affairs. Factionalism eventually gave way to the downfall of the rebellion, although the Ciompi would rule the city until 1382.

Florence, the 21st century. Being subjected to work weeks of seven days of 12-hour shifts, migrant workers in the city’s textile industry go on strike. As the workers are painted by their industrialist employers as ‘vile and useless people’, the factories try everything in their power, even if not legal, to break the strike. Threatening to take away passports, they try to force a wedge between the striking faction of Middle Eastern workers and those of Asian descent who still continue their labour. Supported by Italian activists, the workers on the picket line do not give way to intimidation and continue their struggle.

Unfortunately Ciompi doesn’t give the audience a resolution for the latter struggle. The film intercuts between the two histories through voice-overs, including that of Alessandro Stella, an Italian historian who fled Italy in the late 1970s after being part of the armed resistance during Italy’s violent Years of Lead. Shooting most of the film on Super 8, Perrais renders the struggle of Florentine workers across the centuries as a timeless one and strongly evokes a lower class, DIY feel that gels well with the film’s subject matter; and incorporating Stella, an expert on the subject of the Ciompi rebellion, is a reminder that such struggles could result in violence even as recently as half a century ago. Strongly political, Ciompi works best when it actively connects the two uprisings it portrays: Florentine activists reading off a list of names of the people involved in the 14th century revolt mirrored by the striking workers of today reading off a list of names of their comrades are Ciompi‘s strongest moments. Elsewhere, the film is marred by a sense of didacticism and a lack of a coherent thesis, leaving the audience feeling as if a key argument is missing.