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Belleville, belle et rebelle

Director: Daniela Abke (Germany, France). Year of Release: 2021

Lucio, a Basque anarchist and former brickie, is walking round Père Lachaise cemetery. He’s helping the tourists find the grave of Edith Piaf, who war born nearby. After pointing in her general direction, he interrogates them about their history and politics. Where are they from? Do they live here? They’re Argentinians. It seems that one of them is here as a student, and the others are passing through. They don’t admit to any strong political ideas, much to Lucio’s disdain.

Lucio is mainly there to visit Eugène Pottier, veteran of the Paris Communard and writer of the original words to the Internationale, which became much more famous after he died. Lucio despairs that France has become reactionary, and that its kids are all now (US-)Americanized. Before his death in 2020 (after filming stopped), Lucio ran the Louise Michel cultural centre, named after the most famous female member of the Commune.

The film contains several memorials to the Commune, not just Pottier and Michel. Jean-Baptiste Clément’s song “Le Temps des cerises” is discussed – Lucio says that everyone loves the song, but there is a discussion about whether it’s a song about love or revolutionary change. There seems to be more discussion about 1871 than about the present. You feel that the protagonists feel more comfortable living in a rebellious past.

Belleville, belle et rebelle is a film about the bistro “Le vieux Belleville” (the old Belleville), and its regulars. We see a lot of Lucio – when I was walking out of the cinema, I was behind a woman who told her friend “it was good, but there was a bit too much of the anarchist”. I disagree. Parts of the film dragged a little, but whenever Lucio popped up wearing his stereotypical beret, he injected a bit more life into proceedings.

The bistro is run by Joseph, who like many of the film’s characters is the child of immigrants – in his case, a son of people from Tunisia. It’s estimated that people from around 120 countries live in the area. Nonetheless, Joseph’s customers greet each other very gallicly, with a kiss on each cheek, order a Ricard and start singing.

Many of the regulars are singers – some amateur, some professional like Minelle, who performs regularly in the bistro. There is a moving scene towards the end of her playing her accordion and singing Bella Ciao to an audience who all know the words and are happy to sing along. It is Minelle who provides the film’s title, when she says “rather beautiful and rebellious than ugly and boring”.

Then there is Robert, who is now a writer but was once François Truffaut’s assistant director. Like the others, he is proud of the neighbourhood and its radical history. Belleville was once a working class district and home to artists. It’s not too far from the tiny one-room flat that my friend Nikki lived in with her husband and two kids near the Bastille, before gentrification forced them out. I would guess that Belleville has been similarly affected.

This is not a typical documentary. There are no talking heads. Director Daniela Abke just seems to let her cameras roll and let the various inhabitants of Belleville move in and out of focus. We hear some astounding stories, for example about Lucio, whose past as forger and bank robber who was close to ETA meant that Interpol were very interested in what he was doing. Lucio discusses this past gleefully with the magistrate who prosecuted him back in the day.

There is a lot of pride about a strong working class area, where everyone looked after their neighbours, but less direct acknowledgement of developments in the district. So, for example, we hear a lot of singing, but almost entirely old chansons or songs from the Commune. You enjoy the company of the people you meet, but fear that their justified fear about the rightward turn of France also means that they are reluctant to acknowledge any progress.

The film is shot in black and white, and seems to belong to a different era. It’s not just Lucio’s reminiscences of the Commune, 150 years ago. For all the diversity of the area, younger, less white, characters appear mainly in the background without a speaking role. You see some of them playing football in the streets, but this is a film – for better or worse – which concentrates on the older residents of the area, who have been here longer.

I’ve seen Belleville belle et rebelle compared to the recent Portuguese film Fado, and there are similarities and differences. Faso was more inclined to rage against the dying of the light, to acknowledge the creeping gentrification of Lisbon, but not to give up the fight to resist this. Belleville, in contrast, seems to accept Lucio’s analysis that France is going to hell in a handcart, so at least clings on to old traditions. Both films come from a good position, but only one is hopeful.

Nonetheless. Belleville provides a fascinating insight into a culture which should not be allowed to disappear. I watched Belleville belle et rebelle on a Sunday lunchtime, which is exactly the right time to see it. Nothing much happens, there is no urgency, certainly no car crashes or any suggestion of any possible change. Nonetheless, it’s just the right sort of film to wash over you while you slowly regain consciousness after a late Saturday night. We need these films too.

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