May 21st, 2024

War orphan’s story coming to city theatre


By Lethbridge Herald on May 3, 2024.

Five-year-old Gino Farnelli-Bragaglia, seen in this wartime image, was rescued from near death by Canadian troops during the battle to defeat the Nazis in the Second World War. Photo courtesy of Combined Forces Production Collaborative

Al Beeber – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – abeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

He was found at the edge of a bomb crater in a quarry by Canadian troops as they battled to free Italy of the Nazis in 1944.

The starving orphan boy was on the precipice between life and death. The Canadian soldiers ignored their rules and rescued the child, taking him to their camp to bring him back to health.

Until the end of the war, that Italian child, who was sewn his own Canadian military uniform and served as a bicycle dispatch for his rescuers, was taken care of by his new military family, who would pool their pay so they could give him a wage of his own.

At war’s end when they were caught trying to smuggle the boy home the Canadians found him a family in Italy to care for him and provided that family with the financial support so they could properly raise him as one of their own.

Now 86 years old, thanks to the kindness of the Canadians, he had a successful career in the global energy sector and eventually learned who his true identity was.

His story is the focus of a 55-minute docu-drama to be shown Sunday at the Movie Mill called “Gino – A Child of War.”

Presented by the Lethbridge United Services Institute – an advocacy group for the Canadian military headed by Glenn Miller – the film will show at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 apiece.

The Calgary-based producers of the film, Robert Curtin and Karen Storwick of a company called Combined Forces Production Collaborative, will be present.

The Collaborative has been operating for about seven years with their focus on telling Canada’s military history. They’ve been involved in the design and development of exhibits and film productions in military museums across Canada.

Curtin and Storwick have been working together for about 15 years in total.

 Curtin, in a phone interview this week, said Storwick is a historian turned filmmaker while he is a filmmaker turned historian.

After hearing of the tale from retired colonel Tony Battista, who was the Canadian military attache in Rome, they investigated the tale of Gino Farnelli-Bragaglia and created a movie of his story.

With a limited budget, most of the filming was done in Calgary but a crew visited Italy to hear the voices of key players in the story. 

It has been shown in various places including as part of the Venice Film Festival and interest has been expressed to the producers in turning it into a full-fledged feature film.

Curtin and Storwick have done numerous projects over the years including “Mission: Afghanistan” which will come to Lethbridge as well later this year.

The story of Gino is linked to the 80th anniversary of Operation Husky, the Allied landing in Sicily and the Italian campaign, according to the film’s website.

“In 1983, Gino, then in his 40s, receives a strange letter accompanied by an old photo of Canadian soldiers. By reading the name of Lloyd ‘Red’ Oliver, a light sparks inside of him. He remembers this name… ‘Red’ was one of the Canadian soldiers who took care of him during the war after he was found astray at five years old in a quarry near Torrice, south of Rome. Gino is suddenly brought back to his forgotten past, inspiring a quest for rediscovery into the truth of his origins,” says the website.

“This story bears witness to the resiliency of the human spirit through friendships built during times of war and the amazing initiatives of Canadian soldiers. For Gino, remembering the legacy of caring extended to him as a young boy exposes the strong bonds and memories which have endured more than 80 years after the war. Through Gino’s quest to recollect his memories, we follow how the past unfolds into the present,” says the website.

Curtin and Storwick were approached about a year ago by Battista who told them of the story.

“Against all the rules, they decided they couldn’t leave this child to die,” Curtin said of the soldiers.

“They brought him to their military camp, nursed him back to health, had a Canadian military uniform made him and for 10 months while they were serving and fighting the Axis powers in Italy, he travelled with them, moved from camp to camp. They got a bicycle together for him, he became a dispatch rider in their various camps, riding on his bicycles delivering messages. And the soldiers loved him so much, they even pooled their money so that when they got their pay slips, he was given a pay slip, too, said Curtin from Calgary while describing the process of creating the film and the history behind Gino’s story.

“It’s a marvellous story about this little boy,” he added.

Battista, while serving in Rome, was asked to officiate at an event in a town called Torrice – the community closest to where five-year-old Gino was found – and heard about the tale.

At the time of the ceremony in 1974, Gino’s baptism and birth certificates had been found and the for the first time he discovered his real name. 

“The story of Gino and the film we have made has generated a lot of notoriety,” Curtin said.

Curtin and Storwick, after their conversation with the retired military official, did research and obtained the rights to a book on Gino that had been written in Italian and did a translation of it. That book is a companion piece to the film, said Curtin.

Last July 1, Curtin premiered in Torrice the first Italian edit of the film. Gino was there and autographed three boxes of the book.

Last fall, organizers of the Venice film festival asked the producers to present the trailer as part of a segment called “The Production Bridge,” consisting of projects in production.

“We received a rave response,” Curtin said.

Since then it has been shown in Calgary and Toronto where Curtin grew up and developed an appreciation for Italian television.

“It’s remarkable the recognition we’re getting for the story.”

Curtin said due to budget constraints, one team flew to Italy and interviewed numerous people including Gino as well as the author of the book and an Italian historian.

“They are the storytellers,” he said, with re-creations being shot in Alberta.

“We were able to gain access to a re-creation group that have all the appropriate World War Two clothing, we had a seamstress that actually made this five-year-old’s Canadian military uniform…

“And we literally shot it in and around a company here in Calgary, Crown Surplus,” which has acquired over the years a great deal of military equipment, Curtin said.

“We really created something that had the beauty of the Italian countryside and the Italian storytelling. . . 

“What we tried to do is create this film with beautiful music, cinematography that looks just like it would have from that period in Italy and somehow we’ve created an incredibly touching story that people seem to love,” Curtin added.

The film was partially funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and producers also got some help from the Lethbridge United Services Institute.

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