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!”
Bella Ciao! receives its red-carpet premiere at the Vancity Theatre, with the Carnival Band in attendance, on Wednesday (April 10).