Five years ago, Carlsbad surfer and artist Chris Del Moro decided that in order to better move forward in his life, he needed to go back.
With Santa Barbara surf filmmaker Jason Baffa, Del Moro returned to his native Italy to walk the streets of his childhood, visit his grandparents' abandoned apartment, break bread with friends new and old and catch some waves.
The result was "Bella Vita," a cinematic love letter to Tuscany that helped kick off the San Diego Italian Film Festival on April 22, at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.
The 86-minute film, which documents the emerging surf culture in Italy as well as the craftsmanship of Tuscan artisans, was followed by a Q&A with Baffa and a pre-party that featured organic wines from Ziobaffa, a Tuscan wine brand created as a result of the film.
While filming "Bella Vita," Baffa (who Tuscan locals nicknamed "uncle Baffa," or "zio Baffa") and Del Moro profiled fifth-generation Tuscan winemaker and longtime surfer Piergiorgio Castellani. After filming wrapped, the trio collaborated on the wine, which is sustainable and zero waste, thanks to its use of recycled bottles and reusable corks.
Del Moro wasn't at the screening Saturday. He is in Australia this month with his wife, Madgi, and their 1-year-old son, Marley. But on Thursday, he talked about the film and how his life has changed since its release four years ago.
These days, Del Moro is surfing less and spending more time as an artist and designer for Bahgsu Jewels. The Carlsbad company, started by Madgi Del Moro nine years ago, creates handmade crystal and semiprecious stone jewelry. It's named for the Himalayan town where she studied silversmithing in 2008.
When they were filming "Bella Vita" in Tuscany in 2012, surfing was still seen as counter-culture. But among the many surfers catching waves in the film was then-14-year-old Leonardo Fioravanti. Now 19, the Rome native is ranked No. 36 in the world by the World Surf League. His success has brought more attention to surfing in Italy, along with a crop of new Italian surf filmmakers.
"The surf culture in Italy seems to really be growing in a great direction," said Del Moro, 34. "Not only is the core surfer developing his skills and community, but the diversity in craft has flourished. There has also been a great surge of Italian directed films like the Onde Nostre crew who are making beautiful projects that capture the essence of modern and classic Italian surfing."
Del Moro was born in Florence, where his American mother and Italian father fell in love. When he was 5 years old, his parents split up and he moved permanently to California with his mom. For the next 10 years, he spent every summer in Florence visiting his father and grandparents.
Del Moro discovered surfing as a teenager and went on to become not only a well-known professional surfer but also an artist and advocate for sustainable living. Thanks to his versatility on the board, passion for the sport, articulate speech and good looks, he became an icon of the sport and the darling of surf filmmakers, including Baffa.
Several years ago, Del Moro and Boffa were talking about their shared Italian heritage and decided to explore their roots and the surfing culture in Italy with "Bella Vita." They brought along family and several friends, including Dave Rastovich of New Zealand, who recently retired from pro surfing to become an ambassador for Patagonia Sports in Australia.
"Having my family and friends involved meant that every day, no matter good or bad, found me in the company of amazing people who helped make life so sweet," Del Moro said. "Retracing my footsteps through Tuscany and Sardinia brought back so many memories and old acquaintances as well, all of which helped me to better understand what shaped me and to better understand where I came from."
Intermixed with surfing footage in "Bella Vita," Baffa profiled several Italian artisans whose families have been making wine, cheese and even gondola boats for generations. Del Moro said he felt it important to honor the Italians' dedication to sustainable living and agriculture.
"I strongly believe that some of the best cuisine, wine and craftsmanship comes from Italy, so it was easy to highlight these age-old traditions while we waited for waves," he said.
"Bella Vita" was one of the first films featured at the 10th annual San Diego Italian Film Festival, which opened Thursday and will continue with twice-monthly screenings through Oct. 12 at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas and the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park.
San Diego has long been home to a sizable Italian expatriate community, many of them drawn to the region by its Mediterranean climate. Del Moro said he's not surprised.
"Italians love good ingredients, and San Diego has a great blend of ocean, culture and laid-back California style," he said. "It's great to see how much influence Italy has had on San Diego and vice versa. It's two great cultures becoming one."