Bella Ciao! takes a dreamlike wander through the cultures that coalesce on Commercial Drive
by Janet Smith on April 10th, 2019 at 11:25 AM
Living around the Drive has an undeniably surreal quality, something Vancouver director Carolyn Combs captures with poetic panache in Bella Ciao!.
The Carnival Band passing through an alley, playing a resistance song while aging Italian guys reminisce on a restaurant patio. Gamelan music echoing hauntingly up through a park. A murder of crows turning the dawn sky black as it flies east. A sculptor hanging upside down and blindfolded in an industrial lot as part of an art project. Yes, these are the random things that happen in Grandview, and shot hazily through cinematographer Andrew Forbes’s lens, they appear dreamlike and almost magical here.
That delirious feel mixes with an overriding compassion in this patient, pensive, and leisurely wander through the various cultures that mingle on and around Commercial Drive.
With screenwriters Michael Springate and Jeremy Waller, Combs paints a colourful array of lost characters—Indigenous, Chilean, and Italian, and the marginalized—who come together to support each other.
The central figure is Carmen Aguirre’s Constanza, who shares Aguirre’s own background of fleeing violence in Chile. Dying of cancer, she’s haunted by images of the uprising in her past. She’s having a hard time connecting with her anxious caregiver-daughter Soledad (Alexandra Lainfiesta), who in turn struggles to live up to her mother’s strength.
The pair hand in intense yet suitably offbeat performances, with other standouts including Tony Nardi as the grounded owner of a Drive restaurant (old-school Italian institution Arriva), and playwright-actor Marie Clements as Hester, a no-bullshit activist who refuses to worry about the physically weakening Constanza. The film interweaves an assortment of hustlers, thieves, and addicts trying to get by—giving things a grittiness that also comes with life on Commercial.
Bella Ciao! drifts along on serendipity (see Billy Marchenski’s upside-down artist). But while the setting and most of the characters are compelling, the relationships are sometimes too impressionistic; the main story lines about Constanza getting “lost” and a street kid (Taran Kootenhayoo) looking for his missing sister are thin.
Still, the denouement returns to that haunting atmosphere again. A sunset reunion of Constanza and Soledad is ghostly and moving. And a tango night at a local café sends music swirling out into the twilight, while a tweaking addict finds momentary calm pulsing to the groove on the sidewalk. You know, one of those things that you could only see on the Drive
Thursday 04th, April 2019 by Noémie Attia at BEATROUTE
When: Wednesday April 10, 7:30PM
Vancouver premiere (19+)
Tickets: $20, viff.org
“Bella Ciao” is a song of resistance: its melody ignites hearts, and its lyrics touch rebellious souls. It appeared in the 1940s, on Italian rice fields where women laboured during long, hot summers. They would sing about their dreadful work conditions – the long hours, the heavy-handed bosses, and the insect bites. The Partisans made it famous during the Second World War and, since then, it has become an international rallying cry of all kinds of resistance causes..
Carolyn Combs gave the same title to her film for a good reason. Bella Ciao! takes place on Commercial Drive, in the heart of Vancouver’s Little Italy. “I liked that about the song: it seemed fitting for the film,” says Combs. “The Italians and the Latin Americans and the Indigenous cultures come together and resist.”
Bella Ciao! is etched with an endearing realism, portraying a place that is home for the director: East Van. Combs envisions her environment as a research topic that she has to explore. “For me, that’s what making a film is: une recherche. I wanted to find out where I lived and who else lived there. I really like the neighbourhood, there seems to be cultural resistance there.”
People Combs met and interviewed inspire all of her characters. The most notable one is Costanza (Carmen Aguirre), a Chilean woman who escaped the coup in 1973 and tries to pass on to her daughter, Soledad, her culture of resistance as she confronts her own mortality.
“Some of the first people I interviewed to find out where it is that I live were members of my co-op,” says Combs, who lives in the Paloma Housing Co-operative, just off the Drive. The co-op was founded by Chilean refugees, recognized as such by Canada, when the States didn’t allow their immigration. “There was a man named Bob Everett, who was Carmen’s stepfather. He was in Chile during the coup and managed to get out. He petitioned to the Trudeau government to allow Chileans to come in as refugees.”
Combs even includes some shots from The Battle of Chile, a film by Patricio Guzmán documenting Chilean activism against the Pinochet government. Despite these very tangible elements, Bella Ciao! has a deeply lyrical, magical feeling.
“That’s one thing I wanted to capture, to play with: those seemingly unreal moments that are actually quite real,” she says. “The surrealism or the magic is within our reality. It’s in our day-to-day experience, when you look for it.”
This is no surprise coming from Combs, who cites The Ballad of Narayama among her inspirations for shooting the beautiful metaphor of Carmen’s final “journey up the mountain.” Moreover, as they filmed on Cypress Mountain, purple flowers blossomed in front of them. perfectly illustrating a lyric in “Bella Ciao” that says “bury me in the shade of a flower on the mountain.”
Oneiric and dramatic, fictional and realistic, Bella Ciao! tells stories about a community, first and foremost. It includes marginalized people and depicts generous acts and incongruous situations; all exist in daily life, but are “not part of the stories we tell,” in Combs’ words.
“I think it’s important that we share those stories about ourselves, and that we’re capable of caring for each other and that communities are capable of coming together and creating change,” she concludes. “I want to keep that possibility alive.”
Adrian Mack of The Georgia Straight, April 3rd, 2019
It was in December 1973 that author-playwright-actor Carmen Aguirre’s family fled the Pinochet regime in Chile, eventually landing in Vancouver and taking up residence in an East 3rd Avenue co-op that would come to be named the Paloma.
Now Aguirre plays a central role in Bella Ciao! as Constanza, a woman facing terminal illness while haunted by Chile’s past. Closing the circle, Constanza’s apartment in the film is actually Bella Ciao! director Carolyn Combs’s apartment in real life—at the Paloma.
“Her bedroom is our living room,” Combs reveals during a call to the Georgia Straight. “There’s a real connection between Carmen and the role and this place.” Indeed, Bella Ciao! is maybe the sum of its connections. In Combs’s words, it’s a “homage” to the East Van she and her family fell in love with after relocating from Montreal in the mid-2000s.
The leisurely paced film observes a homeless First Nations kid (Taran Kootenhayoo), Italian restaurant owner Arnaldo (Tony Nardi), women’s-rights activist Hester (filmmaker Marie Clements), and sundry other folk—the East Side’s Carnival Band included—who interact with Constanza and her daughter Soledad (Alexandra Lainfiesta) over the course of a day.
If there’s an elegiac quality to Bella Ciao!, it’s because the dramatic changes Vancouver has experienced in the past 10 years have belatedly reached the Drive, making it doubly poignant for those playing spot-the-location with Combs’s film.
“Caffé Amici closed before the script was finished,” the filmmaker laments. “We used to meet there to write and hash out ideas. It was sad to see it go. It informed the kind of nostalgia that you see in Arnaldo’s coffee shop. But rents go up, the independents move out, and the chains move in. It’s unfortunate.”
Still, if the Drive’s personality is flagging a little these days, alongside its “culture of resistance”, both are hard-coded into Bella Ciao!. Whatever serendipity brought Aguirre together with the filmmaker radiates out, resonating with a global battle increasingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see.
“Certainly,” Combs affirms, “that part of the film is quite timely, particularly with what’s happening in Venezuela.” In Canada, meanwhile, a national creep to the right is “less obvious”, she says, “but still happening all around us. We live with that, don’t we? That edge of despair.
“But then,” Combs continues, suddenly roused, “the Carnival Band comes marching through on a beautiful sunny day! And someone gives you 20 bucks! And you think, ’Okay, it’s not so bad!’ ”
Absolutely! And so Bella Ciao! becomes something of a poem to the notion that art and resistance nourish each other.
“I hope so,” she says. “That’s a really nice way to think about the movie. And we do see so many movies that don’t reflect the values that we really do actually have as a society, you know? We’re not as mean as we come across! We do have compassion for each other! We do care!”
Carolyn Combs didn’t set out to make a culturally diverse film. Her original goal was to set a character-driven drama in her Commercial Drive neighbourhood.
But if you’re setting your full-length film in a neighbourhood as complicated, vibrant and storied as the Drive, and the neighbourhood is informing the plot and the characters, you’re going to get diversity.
“When we started making the film, I wasn’t trying to be diverse,” Combs says. “I wasn’t trying to be inclusive. I was telling a story about this neighbourhood and the world around me, and I think if we’re truly to tell stories about the world around us, they’re going to be diverse.”
Bella Ciao!, which premieres this week at the Whistler Film Festival, takes place at the intersection of East Vancouver’s First Nations, Latin American and Italian communities: a confluence of cultures that is peak Commercial Drive.
“Everyone has a unique story, and when you walk down the Drive or pop into one of the coffee shops, you’re often not really aware of all of the histories around you,” Combs says.
Bella Ciao!’s main characters — played by author, theatre artist and actress Carmen Aguirre, First Nations filmmaker Marie Clements (The Road Forward), Tony Nardi (La Sarrasine), Taran Kootenhayoo and Alexandra Lainfiesta — individually struggle with identity issues, emotional and physical wounds and mortality. But they find strength and solidarity where their histories and traumas overlap.
“They’re all seeking dignity,” says Combs. “They become open to each other. I want people to know that solidarity is possible, that working with each other is possible.”
It’s something she’s seen play out on the Drive. The neighbourhood has been Combs’ home since she arrived in Vancouver in the mid 2000s. In 2009, she began interviewing people in her housing co-op about their memories of the ’hood in order to develop a script about the Drive and its people.
This is how Combs learned about the Chilean refugees who settled in East Vancouver in 1973, and how she met Aguirre. As a child, Aguirre had lived in the same housing co-op that Combs now called home; both of Aguirre’s parents had been involved in the Chilean resistance movement against Augusto Pinochet.
Aguirre — an actress (Endgame) and author whose books include Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter and 2016’s Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution — was heavily involved in developing Constanza, the ailing Chilean refugee she plays in Bella Ciao!
“She came on very early and she shaped the character — what was authentic, what wasn’t — and it was incredibly educational,” Combs says.
It was Aguirre who connected Combs with internationally renowned Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, and how footage from Guzmán’s masterwork The Battle of Chile ended up in Bella Ciao!
“I had watched The Battle of Chile in 1980 in a film class at Concordia, and I was blown away and never actually dreamed that I would ever be able to use his footage in a film that I would make,” Combs says.
Combs’ time on the Drive has changed her, as has her experience making Bella Ciao!
Carmen Aguirre in Bella Ciao!