Bella Ciao: How a native folk song rose to become a universal anthem of resistance


Never before in history have so many of the human race stayed behind closed doors, scurrying away from an enemy infinitely inferior to them. From Turin to Thiruvananthapuram, empty streets and desolate town centers have become a common sight. With heads of state and health professionals merging uncanny words from the lexicon into singular terms such as self-isolation and social distancing, the world has arrived today to an abrupt standstill, after moving into self-imposed or government-enforced lockdowns in all the continents sans Antarctica.

The residents across countries affected by the novel coronavirus have shown gratitude to the doctors, nurses and other health personnel by applauding from their balconies. Italians have been singing patriotic numbers through the night to lift each other’s spirits and boost their morale even as casualties due to the virus crossed the 10,000 mark on Monday.

There is one song in particular that has been resounding across Europe in solidarity with those affected in various parts of the world, and especially in Italy, by the deadly virus.

‘Bella Ciao’ which literally translates to goodbye beautiful in Italian, has been uniting people across nations for many generations according to the circumstances of the time. Originally sang by the women of Po valley who were rice paddy workers in Northern Italy, the song symbolized resentment against landlords and supervisors who had forced the women, often from the poorest social classes, to work on meagre wages for hours on end. In the earliest script written in 1906 by an unknown author, it spoke of a ‘padroni’ or boss who ‘inspected the work with a cane’, while the women ‘worked with their backs curved.’

“Oh my mother, what a torment, Bella Ciao” and the lines “but the day will come when we all work in freedom” soon became an anthem of the working population and a song that roared of rebellion and freedom.

The ode that breathed defiance against the ruling order was then picked up by the anti-fascist movement in Italy against Benito Mussolini and the Nazis by various resistance groups, popularly known as partisans, between 1943 and 1945 during World War II.

Its lines were then modified accordingly to fit the war narrative. The partisan replaced the paddy field worker, who was out to defend the German invaders from his motherland. He later requests to be buried under a flower if he would ever lose his life.

“And if I die, as a partisan, you must bury me up in the mountains, under the shadow of a beautiful flower.”

“And all those passing by will exclaim, what a beautiful flower, Bella Ciao. The flower of the partisan who died for our freedom.”

The newly formed Italian Republic was founded on this struggle of the resistance.

It spread across boundaries faster than wildfire, to gain international recognition as the hymn of freedom, and was used explicitly in many revolutionary events around the world since then. People gathered by the thousands in Barcelona, Greece, Tunisia, and Puerto Rico in movements against the establishment and more recently in France’s Yellow Vest protests and in Palestine, against Trump’s failed ‘Deal of the Century.’

In 2017, the song opened ears to a new generation of audiences when it was featured extensively in the Spanish TV series ‘La Casa de Papel,’ known internationally as ‘Money Heist.’

It’s protagonist, ‘The Professor,’ centers his whole being under a single objective – resistance. His accomplices, named after capital cities, are clad in red jumper suits symbolizing love, death and of course, revolt while they don Dali masks, perhaps a nod to the artist’s distaste to a capitalist society.

It goes, without doubt, to say that the central theme of the show, accompanied with such an empowering anthem, catapulted it to meteoric popularity around the world.

Money Heist is the most watched Non-English series on Netflix with close to 44 million users streaming season three within the first few weeks of its initial release. No wonder why every Tom, Danish and Hari has been binge-watching it since the quarantine began.

Season Four of the much-acclaimed TV series premiers on April 3, and you could also sing ‘Bello Ciao’ along with the boy or girl next door if you begin binging it now.

It’s not like you've anything better to do during the Great Isolation, right?