Throughout last year, I came across several articles that referenced the spate of pro-life films flooding cinemas. From Juno to Knocked Up to Waitress, pro-lifers were finding some unwitting partners in a variety of cinematic genres. One of these films, Bella, ran for quite some time in cinemas across the country. I heard and read mixed reviews, none of the negatives would stand in the way of a free Redbox Wednesday rental (I don’t know what happened to Monday). I really wanted to like this film, but, unfortunately, the dialogue surrounding the creation and distribution of the film was more compelling than the film itself.
Directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Bella tells the story of a promising young soccer player, Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), whose life changes in the blink of an eye. Having been involved in a fatal accident, he is sent to prison for four years. The film opens after his release, and we learn about the events that surrounded his imprisonment through a series of flashbacks.
Jose never plays soccer agin and becomes a chef in his brother Manny’s (Manny Perez) rather oppressive kitchen. A three-strikes-and-you’re-out boss, Manny fires one of his waitresses, Nina (Tammy Blanchard), without bothering to ask why she has been late to work. Nina is pregnant. Jose abandons the kitchen and pursues Nina in an effort to console her. He learns that not only is she pregnant, but that she will seek an abortion. Jose spends the rest of the day and night with Nina walking around New York City, visiting his parents in the suburbs, and going to the beach. This day, or rather Jose, changes Nina’s life forever.
I will not say much more about the plot because I do not want to ruin the frustrating experience of having to endure narrative fits and starts and gaping plot holes. It is unfortunate that the film’s stunning visuals service such a troublesome script. We have some decent acting here, although the bit players often outshine their leading counterparts.
Bella, of course, has a theological and spiritual message…it damn well better with a production company named Metanoia Films. However, the dialogue surrounding the film is certainly just as spiritual and interesting as the film itself. Director Monteverde joined with actor Verastegui and executives Sean and Eustace Wolfington and Leo Severino to form the aforementioned Metanoia Films. Thus far, Bella is the production company’s only film. I find it interesting that they chose this name for their production company which is often translated from Greek to mean “repentance” or “changing one’s mind,” depending on the context.
Indeed, Monteverde et al do want to change people’s minds. In the behind-the-scenes and distribution footage on the DVD, everyone involved with the film speaks about making an uplifting film, one that would “light a candle in the hearts of audiences.” They found in Bella a story that would do just that. On another level, one might view the film as an anti-abortion or pro-life film with the metanoia surrounding this controversial social issue.
Surprisingly, critics as diverse as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert praised the film. Ebert argues that the films is not an anti-abortion or pro-life film. At least on this issue we agree. To be so, it should focus much more on Nina, her background, and struggles. Instead, like all characters, she exists in service of Jose, the Jesus-come-lately big screen sensation. Since Jose’s accident, he has ceased shaving and tending to his hair. The result directly places him in the lineage of Western cinematic representations of Jesus. In the film, at least, Verastegui could easily be mistaken for Jim Caviezel. Ironically enough, one of Bella‘s producers also produced The Passion of the Christ.
At the end of the day, Bella is not a divisive film, thank goodness, but it’s not really a good film either. Praising Jose’s greatness, while not necessarily undeserved, through Nina’s unfortunate situation is troublesome at best and oppressive at worst.
Bella (91 minutes) is available on DVD and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief disturbing images.