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‘Money Heist’: ‘Bella Ciao’ and the spirit of resistance

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La casa de papel” (“The House of Paper”), more popularly known globally as “Money Heist”, is a beautifully-made Spanish TV series whose success is filled with ironies. One of which is that it was actually a flop when it came out in Spain, and its creators had wrapped up the series in two seasons and thought that was the end. Then Netflix bought the global streaming rights to the series without any expectations, and was shocked when it became the most popular show on the platform and gave birth to a global phenomenon.

So popular is this show that not only did it revive the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao”, but also made the iconic Salvador Dalí masks and red jumpsuits worn by the Professor’s band of thieves recognizable symbols of resistance worn by protesters for different causes around the world. Another irony, because while Dalí was unquestionably a brilliant artist, his politics was problematic. While he started out as a communist who was anti-monarchist and anti-clerical, he later refused to denounce fascism and supported the dictator Francisco Franco when he emerged victorious in the Spanish Civil War in 1939. Which is why he was condemned by his fellow Surrealists. Then again, Nazi Germany corrupted the Indian religious icon of the swastika, while conversely Christians transformed the cross from an instrument of capital punishment used by the Romans. So I suppose it is also fitting to turn the Dalí mask into a symbol of resistance — and that “Money Heist” drew flak from the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation because the show creators didn’t request permission.

Birth of global phenomenon

"La casa de papel", more popularly known globally as "Money Heist", is a beautifully-made Spanish TV series whose success is filled with ironies. Image credit: Netflix
Image credit: Netflix

Last year, Netflix came out with a behind-the-scenes documentary called “Money Heist: The Phenomenon” to examine why this series became an unlikely global phenomenon. Warning, though: this Netflix Original Documentary contains huge spoilers if you haven’t watched Season 4.

“I don’t think we, Netflix, or anyone expected… anything. In fact, it was launched without advertising,” series creator Álex Pina said in the documentary.

The series became so popular that Netflix asked Pina to bring the gang back together for two more seasons. Then, last year Netflix announced that it has renewed “Money Heist” for a fifth and final season, which will start streaming on Sept. 3.

It’s funny that Netflix only bought the global streaming rights just to include the show in its catalogue of international content and didn’t even push “Money Heist” to viewers.

This is what’s remarkable about the success of “Money Heist”. People all over the world embraced the show organically and made it their own.

Rooting for the underdog

The creators and actors themselves are the first to be stunned by the show’s success and the spontaneous outpouring of love for this band of thieves when Netflix started streaming “Money Heist” on Dec. 20, 2017.

I believe the reason many of us fell in love with this show is because we know there is more honor among these thieves than in the bigger robbers occupying positions of power in our governments, banks, police, and other institutions.

As the Professor, the mastermind of the heist, noted in one of the scenes, people instinctively root for the underdog. And by becoming the Resistance with their own code of honor that elevated them from ordinary bank robbers, these thieves were the underdogs taking on an unfair system that punishes poor criminals but protects the rich and powerful who plunder the economy and exploit workers.

Álvaro Morte, the actor who plays the Professor, perhaps best explains the reason for the show’s success: “There’s a wonderful thing that the series has, which is that thing of: The little man can confront the big… and he can win. Who hasn’t felt small at some point when faced with someone big, and has seen that injustice? And wouldn’t he have liked to have a little more power to be able to confront him? Or had someone to take by the arm and say: ‘We’re in this together, right?’ I think it’s that thing of resistance, of: ‘We can do it, however hard it may be’. This is something that… How could that not get its hooks into you?”

‘Bella Ciao’ and the Resistance

In a powerful scene from Season 3, the Professor addresses the crowd in a speech that ironically reflects and builds upon the real-world global phenomenon that the show has become: “This message is for all of you who see this mask as a symbol of resistance. We need you. The state has declared war on us. A filthy war. And we’ve decided to stand up to them.”

More than just a heist crime drama, “Money Heist” is about resistance. It is the Professor who teaches “Bella Ciao” (“Goodbye Beautiful”) to his team, because his grandfather was part of the Italian Resistance, known as partisans (the partigiani mentioned in the song), that fought against the fascists during World War II.

“Bella Ciao” has a long history, tracing its roots to the Italian protest folk song “Alla mattina appena alzata” that originated in the late 19th century. It was originally sung by the mondina — seasonal rice paddy women workers — to protest their harsh working conditions.

Now, thanks to the popularity of this show, “Bella Ciao” is being introduced to a new generation and once again becoming the anthem of resistance all over the world. Art imitates life. Life imitates art.

“Bella Ciao” now also has a Punjabi version, with 27-year-old Poojan Sahil curating a video with the sounds of farmers protesting in India.

In a world being destroyed by rampant capitalism and unbridled greed for money and power, perhaps it is fitting that a bank robbery is a revolutionary act.

O partigiano, portami via
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao
O partigiano, portami via
Ché mi sento di morir


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