Between Two Worlds
Earnest but off-key, Bella preaches to the choir
Metanoia films’ mission statement “to make films that matter and have the potential of making a meaningful difference in people’s lives” is both lofty and laudable. To the young company’s credit their first film, Bella has received some attention on the festival circuit—most notably the People’s Choice award at the Toronto film fest—and is about to be released in selected cities over the next few weeks. While Bella will most likely matter and make a difference to some audiences, its earnest attempts to straddle different worlds has decidedly mixed results.
Much of the story follows the main characters, Nina (Tammy Blanchard, above left) and José (Eduardo Verástegui, above right), during a single day in two very different New York locations. The first locale is the busy kitchen of a Mexican restaurant in the city during the lunch rush. José is the chief chef. His brother, Manny (Manny Perez) is the restaurant’s owner, who treats his staff in an impersonal, rude manner that makes his kitchen a microcosm of the city itself. When Manny angrily fires Nina for consistently being late, José runs after her to see if she’s ok.
After some verbal sparring Nina confides in José that her lateness has been due to her discovery that she is pregnant by a man she doesn’t love. She makes it clear that she does not intend to keep the baby. Moved by her situation, José decides to spend the day with Nina and asks her to go with him to the beach near his parents’ Long Island home.
In contrast to the chaos of his brother’s restaurant Nina encounters the warmth of José’s Mexican-American family. Here we discover that José is also troubled by a past that came to a screeching halt due to a tragedy that occurred just as he was embarking on a promising soccer career. José’s openness about his past encourages Nina to talk about the pain of her father’s early death and the strained relationship with her mother that still haunts her. Through their shared revelations Nina and José face the obstacles to their peace and redemption.
Like their characters, it seems that the filmmakers also want to bridge two worlds by appealing to both a religious/family audience as well as the general film-going public. Obvious spiritual images, themes and music (such as José’s resemblance to Jesus, his scapular prominently displayed, church buildings in the background, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal on a subway in what might normally be a token nun spot) will appeal to some religious audience members. Another attraction will be a script with adult themes that is devoid of cursing.
the clichés of pro-life rhetoric rather than the gut-wrenching language of a young woman seriously considering the termination of
Although many Catholic audiences and reviews have raved about it, the film’s pro-life theme lacked any real sense of drama. Nina’s “pro-choice” arguments contain the clichés of pro-life rhetoric rather than the gut-wrenching language of a young woman seriously considering the termination of her pregnancy. Her reasoning flows from her in a canned, stale, disconnected manner. As a result, it has the feel of the kind of thinly veiled polemics that general audiences will most likely see through.
Bella succeeds in that it is a step forward in terms of Christian filmmaking. It treats a passionate Christian topic in a non-typical way. José is present to Nina, asks her empathic questions, never preaches or lays any guilt on her—he is dealing with his own guilt and can empathize. It is in this sense that the film is a more convincing celebration of life rather than a predictable anti-abortion polemic. It is difficult to argue that Bella will meaningfully make a difference in Christians’ lives because they already agree with the beliefs it promotes.
The use of Latino actors and actresses in this bi-cultural film is commendable. However, with the exception of Eduardo Verástegui, who starred in Meet Me in Miami (2004) and Chasing Papi (2003) and Manny Perez, much of the acting is uneven.
In the end, Bella best portrays the world where death and life collide by contrasting the dead, inhuman relationships so many of us experience with loving, life-giving ones. These relationships create a space into which new life flows forth for both Nina and José in surprising ways. In that sense—though Bella might not fulfill its filmmakers’ mission statement—it is pro-life in ways they may never have intended.