Bella


Human life appears most precious when it is under the gun. At such times, we affirm the greatness of one soul by acting decisively to protect it. Or do we? Modern life produces a multitude of justifications for moral disengagement from our own dark choices and those of friends and strangers.
 
In Bella, a new, award-winning independent film, a pregnant woman bent on an abortion quakes before the enormity of the decision within her grasp. The acquaintance who shepherds her journey out of darkness has problems of his own. The film depicts the confluence of their past, present, and future in a single day that pulls them both in a new direction.
 
Unflinchingly pro-life, Bella is not a crude propaganda vehicle for the anti-abortionist movement, though it may well be used to help provoke a reassessment of Roe v. Wade. Rather, it constitutes a meditation on the gentle grace that comes from our need for others, and the transformative power of relationships anchored in truth rather than sentimentality.
 
Sound a tad controversial? Remarkably, Bella won the People’s Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, has been an "official selection" of numerous other film festivals, and officially opens in a limited number of theaters today. Its backers hope word of mouth, generated by religious and pro-life groups, will result in wider distribution of the film throughout the nation.
 
The film begins with a beach scene: A mysterious bearded man, José (Eduardo Verástegui), meditatively watches a young girl play in the sand. The narrative then moves back in time to the crushing tragedy José plays out in his mind, over and over again. Driving on the city streets, he hits and kills a young girl who has darted out into the road. The accident ends José’s promising career as a soccer player; now he works as a chef in his brother Manny’s (Manuel Perez) busy Mexican restaurant in New York. But the past is never far away, shadowing opportunities to begin again, but also intensifying José’s awareness of the gift of life.
 
On one particular day, the restaurant is especially chaotic. Nina (Tammy Blanchard), the restaurant’s beautiful, long-time waitress, is late again and Manny is fed up. After she finally arrives, he fires her. José goes after Nina to offer sympathy, and discovers that her recent tardiness is due to morning sickness. Pregnant and unmarried, she is now jobless as well. She knows an abortion is her only choice.
 
Much to Manny’s dismay, José spends the rest of the day with Nina, providing comfort and sharing confidences. The viewer joins what amounts to a kind of spiritual pilgrimage during which José introduces Nina to the touchstone of his life: the car accident, but also the warm immigrant family that has never rejected him, and the beach that calms his soul. The journey revives Nina’s sense of hope and shakes her resolve to schedule an abortion. In turn, Nina provides a gift that draws José out of his self-imposed alienation.
 
Verástegui’s José , who appears as a kind of latter-day John the Baptist with a heavy beard disguising his movie-star looks, emerges as the film’s contemplative center. His character challenges the modern viewer to recapture a childlike sensitivity to human need amid the messy business of everyday existence. Blanchard, as Nina, offers a powerful performance through a character that shifts from raw bitterness to a newfound vulnerability. {mospagebreak}
 
The narrative’s fluid movement between past, present, and future seems especially appropriate when engaging the subject of abortion. Advocates of abortion rights often justify the procedure as the only solution for impoverished, unwed mothers too poor to accept responsibility for another life. Bella’sstory is a reminder that the future is not fixed, and that we are not alone.
 
In Bella, the utilitarian equation that justifies an abortion yields to the grace of redemption, arising from an unconditional gift of love and friendship. The castoff daughter of selfish parents, Nina learns to believe again in the possibility of love. And the innate reciprocity of love means that José receives much more than he bargained for when he plays hooky from work.
 

Behind the Scenes

 
Produced by Metanoia Films, Bella is the fruit of a collaboration between Mexican and American filmmakers, led by director Alejandro Monteverde and producers Sean Wolfington and Leo Severino. The film may benefit from heightened interest in the work of Mexican filmmakers over the last couple of years. In 2007, the Mexican directors of Babel and Pan’s Labyrinth drew a slew of Oscar nominations, and Hollywood is more eager than ever to crack the burgeoning Hispanic market. In a series of private screenings, the Metanoia team has emphasized its desire to present a rich, complex portrait of Hispanic life in the United States.
 
"Our mission is to make films that make a positive impact, and we need the support of everyone who shares that mission," explained Wolfington, who also helped to finance the film. Yet despite the film’s success at the Toronto Film Festival and other prestigious venues, it has faced resistance from major film distributors.
 
Bella‘s top promoter is co-producer and lead actor, Eduardo Verástegui. A onetime Mexican pop music star and soap opera idol, he came to Hollywood six years ago and landed a lead role in the 2003 Latin comedy, Waiting for Papi. Challenged by his English tutor to rethink his lifestyle and choice of film projects, Verástegui experienced a profound conversion to the Catholic faith of his family. He decided to look for a fresh creative approach that presented Latin Americans in a more realistic way, celebrating "ordinary heroes" rather than negative cultural stereotypes.
 
Since filming Bella, the charismatic actor has met with Catholic and pro-life groups throughout the country, asking them to help initiate publicity and theater rentals for church and school groups.
 
The grassroots effort follows the strategy employed by Mel Gibson and Steve McEveety, producers of The Passion of the Christ. When most national theater chains refused to show The Passion, Evangelical Christian and Catholic groups directly booked theaters. Subsequently, the big movie distributors agreed to show the controversial film, and The Passion went on to gross worldwide box-office receipts in excess of $600 million. McEveety has signed on as executive producer of Bella.
 
Given the success of other recent films that offer pro-life solutions to unplanned pregnancies — Knocked Up, a summer hit among young adults; Waitress, a popular indie film; and The Children of God, an adaptation of a P.D. James’s novel — it’s surprising that Bella has faced some trouble. But unlike Knocked Up, for example, which mixes sonograms of an unborn child with unrelenting vulgarity, or The Children of Men, which celebrates the miracle of human life while upending James’s self-described "Christian fable," Bella offers a more integrated portrait of Christian love and responsibility.
 
In Bella, the viewer perceives that respect for unborn human life is part of a larger tapestry of relationships that involves loving families, generous friends, and open-handed co-workers. It is what the late John Paul II called a "civilization of love." This holistic spirit pervades the film and may be enough to provoke the watchdogs of political correctness. Or maybe Bella‘s creative team simply needs to pay its dues in Tinseltown.
 
Bella is Metanoia Films’ first creative project. It is a promising start.
 


Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

 
Photo © Inferno Distribution

Joanna Bogle

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Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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