It all happens in the course of one day, or almost all of it. I’m speaking of the storyline and action of the new movie Bella. Through the use of flashbacks, some quite effective and some rather confusing to me, the accidental death of a young girl and a pregnant woman’s completely unrelated decision to have an abortion are closely linked in Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s magnificent new movie, Bella.
Bella is portrayed as a love story without the romance. It is this but in so many ways this is a misnomer. It is a love story that shows, in wonderfully human ways, what the Apostle Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. The characters in Bella are very real. Their sorrow and joys are palpable. I am under the strong impression that the story is rooted in true events, at least to some extent.
The internationally famous, Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), who is on his way to becoming a superstar soccer player in New York city, tragically hits a little girl while driving the streets of Queens the day before he was to sign a $2.2 million contract. He then had to serve time for manslaughter and his life was completely altered. Upon his release he became a chef for his older and demanding brother, Manny (Manny Perez). Manny has succeeded in business with an upscale Mexican restaurant in Manhattan but without Jose, and a fine staff, the place could never succeed. Yet Manny, a hard-driving type A if there ever was one, believes he can treat people with disdain and still succeed in life. The movie opens with Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a waitress at Manny’s restaurant, arriving late for work. It is her third offense. Manny will hear no explanation and fires her on the spot. Jose has pity on Nina and follows her out onto the streets to see if he can help. In the process he leaves his cell phone behind and Manny is up the creek without this head chef and no way to reach him. Nina reveals to Jose that she has been late because of morning sickness and that she wants to have an abortion. She’s broke, she’s just lost her job, and she is in no position to care for a new baby on her own. (She is also unmarried.) As the day progresses Nina comes to trust Jose step-by-step. Jose helps her find a new job in another restaurant. A relationship ensues but it is never really romantic, at least not in the normal ways we think of romance. Don’t misunderstand. Their relationship is very tender, warm and quite beautiful.
Nina eats lunch with Jose. Then after they walk and talk for awhile she goes to his middle-class home on the Jersey shore for dinner with Jose’s family. (It is glorious to see a Hispanic family treated with such dignity and portrayed as deeply religious, socially well-adjusted and very, very loving! It is also nice to see a movie that does not trash Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.) As Nina experiences this wonderful family she is drawn to trust Jose even more by the end of a long day. She hears his own story of tragedy and comes to feel his deep pain too. Jose urges her to not have an abortion, but in the most tender and reverent ways. He suggests she put the child up for adoption. (Along the way you discover that Manny, Jose’s older brother, is an adopted child.) What is most amazing is that the movie has strong, but often subtle, Christian overtones, but never descends to an aggressive political statement about the pro-life position, either morally or politically.
At a crucial moment of turning, after the evening meal and more conversation about their past, Nina begins to consider not having her abortion after all. Here the most overt Christian message comes by way of the music score. (Few film goers understand how powerfully music is incorporated into a movie in terms of the director’s choice of where to use it and how, which is all done after filming.) As Nina and Jose connect in the most profound way the music of the blind poet Fanny Crosby is plain to all:
I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice, and it told Thy love to me; But I long to rise in the arms of faith, and be closer drawn to Thee.
Consecrate me now to Thy service, Lord, by Thy pow’r of grace divine; Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope, and my will be lost in Thine.
There are depths of love that I cannot know till I cross the narrow sea; there are heights of joy that I may not reach till I rest in peace with Thee.
And the refrain is sung after each verse:
Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord, to the cross where Thou hast died; Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord, to Thy precious blessing side.
My spirit soared. I found myself singing through my tears. My soul was filled with hope. This is a beautiful movie and I believe it should be seen by everyone but the very youngest children, say under nine or ten. The film never takes on abortion, or abortionists, as the opposition. And it does not present adoption as an easy solution, especially with the character of Manny looming in the background in effective ways. It makes a powerful statement about family, the sacredness of human life, and thus the precious value of every one of us, but it never preaches. As Nina tells her story to Jose you feel her deep pain, stemming from the grief of her father’s death when she was twelve. There she lost all sense of familial love. Her emotional and spiritual life was stopped in its tracks, locking her into indescribable pain for years to come. As she talks to Jose you can see life coming back to Nina. Redemption is slowly happening right before your very eyes.
Ken Fox, a TV Guide film critic, says Jose affects Nina’s change of heart through a “hearty application of guilt and pity, two particularly bad reasons for bringing children into this world.” Maybe, but maybe not. But what answers do such writers have for the culture of death? Does abortion resolve the deepest problems of human pain and anguish?
The director/writer of this movie was also involved in The Passion of the Christ, though only friends of the two movies will likely realize this. I first heard of Bella via the promotion of the film on the Catholic radio network, Relevant Radio. Relevant Radio is giving away tickets to the movie in Chicago this weekend, trying to help build a nationwide momentum for the film. The hope of those who produced this film is to get it on hundreds and hundreds of screens all across America by the Christmas season. I believe it could happen if word-of-mouth works, as it often does, to promote great films. This is truly a great film. Support it. Go see it. Buy a ticket, buy several. Be prepared to enter into this powerful story and be changed by the beauty of how it is told in both great dialog and good film technique.
As I noted above, Bella is apparently based on true events. It features a deeply spiritual character, Jose, who undergoes a deep tragedy and comes through it filled with compassion and hope. He clearly has learned from his mistake. Even Roger Ebert, who gave it three stars, says, “It is a heart-tugger with the confidence not to tug too hard.” Ebert concludes, “The movie is not profound, but it’s not stupid.” I would agree on one level but every great film does not have to be profound. Ebert concludes the movie is not pro-choice or pro-life, which is in fact true. This is one reason why it will work so well with a wide audience and why I urge you to take your friends to see it as well.
Many of us have learned that culture is not changed, at least long term, by politics. It is changed when people up river provide ennobling and thoughtful art, music, literature, political theory and religious truth, living to the glory of God very well. Changing culture always involves changing people one at a time by changing the conversation and context of the entire culture. Bella is the kind of movie that can help change the way we converse about life and think about family. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It may be passed over by some critics but if you look at the major reviews, and the public’s response to it, you will see that it is having an impact already. Yesterday, I heard one of the producers of the film tell the story of nine mothers, and these are the only the people he knows about, who had left the movie and chosen life over abortion. When was the last time a movie had that kind of impact on people’s choices?
Don't miss Bella. Take your spouse and see it. Take a friend or a neighbor. Take people from your church. Especially take teenagers. See Bella soon. It is the most culturally redemptive movie of the year, by far.