Bella Ciao! takes a dreamlike wander through the cultures that coalesce on Commercial Drive

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      Starring Carmen Aguirre. Rating unavailable

      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.

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