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A little piece of earth

15 minutes

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From modernist architect, to a life off-grid, a creative life well-lived

Charles Bello’s life is a testament to the fact that there’s no single way to measure success – or the sum of hard work. As a young man, Bello lived in Los Angeles, working for the influential modernist architect Richard Neutra. It was a prestigious position that left Bello utterly unfulfilled – a ‘creative’ job that involved no creative work.

After leaving to build his own ‘speculation houses’ without ready buyers in mind, he found that prospective customers loved his designs, but were less enthusiastic about actually inhabiting the somewhat precarious-looking structures. Disenchanted by urban life and struggling to make ends meet, Bello and his late wife, Vanna Rae Bello, bought 400 acres in a remote, redwood-covered stretch of northern California and started a family together.

‘Two’s a multitude … one alone is not fun,’ Bello offers in the short documentary A Little Piece of Earth, which finds him, at age 86, 10 years widowed, but still driven by a desire to keep a small slice of the planet all his own. His voice is good-humoured but touched with melancholy as he reminisces about building an off-the-grid life from the ground up alongside his wife, and without outside obstruction. And yet, resigned that he’ll never find another love comparable to Vanna and unsure what will become of their beloved Bello Ranch, he’s able to shake off depression by living out the mantra ‘be active, and be creative, and be alive.’

The US director Ryan Malloy crafts a moving account of Bello’s twilight years in his short documentary. Deploying sweeping shots of Bello’s serene architecture, built to look as if it’s sprouted from the soil of the scenic northern Californian landscape, Malloy blurs the lines between person and place, crafting a poignant portrait of a singular life.

Written by Adam D’Arpino

Director: Ryan Malloy

Website: Subjectively True

6 January 2021