While Bella, the product, faced numerous struggles in trying to find a studio willing to finance the indie flick, Bella, the film, faced even more daunting troubles. It could have easily become yet another heavy handed propaganda piece with a barely existent story thinly smeared over the bludgeoning message. Just as easily Bella could have completely stripped the message from the movie in order to appease Hollywood studios wary of promoting a pro-life independent film. Thankfully, Bella was able to balance across the razor’s edge with a simultaneously heart-warming and gut-wrenching story told in a unique and thought provoking way.
The film follows Jose (Eduardo Verástegui), a superstar-soccer-player-turned-cook who walks out of his brother’s (Manny Perez) restaurant to follow Nina (Tammy Blanchard), who was just fired for being late after taking a pregnancy test. In the present, you follow Jose and Nina as they interact with each other and various people throughout New York City, while discussing Nina’s unplanned pregnancy and her plans for “taking care of it.”
As they move from the city to Jose’s family’s beach home, the present is interspersed with flashbacks and flash-forwards. On many occasions the audience is not sure which is which until the final scene of the movie, which also reveals the reason behind the film’s title.
The story takes risks in bringing up subjects and themes without conveniently wrapping up every lose end. The film’s strength mirrors that of its lead character – gentleness. Sensitive issues are discussed and dealt with in some way, but just as in real life not every question is answered and not all the answers seem fair. It avoids the danger of pushing a message too hard or straining to cause everything to fit perfectly in a “happily ever after” bow.
The pace and flow of the film also eschews the trap of triteness by telling the story in an original way. Bits of the past and the future are revealed simultaneously with key present information to give a fuller picture of the characters and the real life, everyday issues they are facing. Through the nonlinear story telling you see the past pain that informs and influences Jose’s present.
Much of the weight of the film falls on the actors who perform superbly. Eduardo Verástegui, as Jose, acts for the vast majority of the film with wild bushy hair and beard, prompting someone to mistake him for a homeless panhandler at one point in the film. Because of this, he must be very expressive with his eyes. He is able to carry the depth of emotions without relying on facial expressions, obscured by the facial hair.
As my wife and I wildly disagreed about the film, I will give this “warning.” If you are going for simple escapism and a feel-good romance, Bella will disappoint you. If you are distracted by disjointed story-telling, which frequently jumps timelines, Bella is not the film for you. If you must see all the questions answered that are raised and have everything explained as the characters move into their fairy tale ended, Bella is not what you will enjoy.
Having said that, if you are looking for a unique story told in a creative way that life affirming values, Bella is perfect for you. Those who desire a movie that will stir up thought and conversation can appreciate what Bella brings to the screen. If you’ve ever wondered what a well done, nonjudgmental independent film touching on the issue of abortion from the pro-life perspective would look like, look no further than Bella.
The strengths of the film are illustrated by the fact that Bella took home both the “People’s Choice Award” at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and the “Grand Prize for Best Dramatic Feature” at the 2007 Heartland Film Festival. That dichotomy in itself is amazing.
FYI:Katherine Rich, an Editorial Assistant with the Film Journal International, emailed me an article that deals with the relative success of Bella, despite its meager budget and lack of major studio backing. It is encouraging to see how Bella has performed beyond expectations, but I can’t help but wonder how much more it would have taken in if Christians had supported it with the same fervor we have opposed The Golden Compass.