Bella | Steven Greydanus for August/September 2007 Catholic World Report
It's the kind of against-all-odds success story every film school student hopes and dreams about. Three first-time film producers—a first-time writer–director, an actor, and a co-writer—set out to make a film with a script and no money. After connecting with entrenpreneurs and getting financing, they shoot the film over a little more than three weeks in New York. The finished picture is selected for a major film festival—Toronto—gets some press, and winds up scoring the People's Choice Award, catapulting it into the spotlight and leading to additional honors and success, including theatrical distribution (set for release in the fall. See the website at http:// www.bellathemovie.com/).
Talk to director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde and his colleagues—actor Eduardo Verástegui, writer–producer Leo Severino, and producer Sean Wolfington—and it's clear that they're as thrilled to be in their shoes as any first-time producers and filmmakers would be. At the same time, it's also clear they have a shared perspective quite different from most filmmakers, whether inside or outside the Hollywood establishment.
Monteverde, a film school graduate and director of award-winning shorts, talks enthusiastically about the skill and inspiration of directors whose technique he admires, such as Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). But Monteverde and his colleagues are also quick to cite such inspirations as John Paul II, who saw beauty and holiness as two sides of the same coin, and Mother Teresa, whose maxim "We are not called to be successful but to be faithful" became a motto for the filmmakers.
For Verástegui—a former boy-band member and telenovela heartthrob known to Latino fans as "the Mexican Brad Pitt"—the mission is simple. "Hollywood doesn't belong to the studios," he recently told CWR. "Hollywood belongs to God. And we need to take it back. And that's what I'm trying to do, by example first, trying my best every day to be involved in projects that will inspire people to use their talents to do something positive for the world."
"I believe that a lot of Hollywood directors are always attracted to the dark side," Monteverde said. "They always like to explore the broken family, the bad friendships, the bad husbands the bad wives, the pain—everything has to be on the down side." Monteverde said he wants to emphasize that "at the end of the tunnel there is always that light. There is always hope."
For Monteverde and Verástegui, the impetus for their commitment to making films with positive themes began with personal conversion and a renewed commitment to their Catholic faith. With Severino, they founded Metanoia Films with the intention of undertaking projects like Bella in keeping with their vision. At the same time, though all are devout Catholics, the partners reject any characterization of their company or their film Bella as "Catholic."
"We don't want to label our company," Verástegui said. "We want to be just another production company in Hollywood, in the secular environment."
"I didn't want to make this into a religious film," Monteverde confirmed. "In my opinion, what makes it connect with audiences is that it deals with universal themes."
"We wanted to do a story that would appeal to universal audiences," Severino agreed. "What we've found is no matter what the background is, people who've seen the film leave the theater touched and moved, and I think it's because we're speaking to them truth that's already written on their heart, truth about the beauty of life, the dignity of the human person, issues of social justice, issues of family, so many things that just ring true to the human heart."
How does Bella connect with mainstream audiences? What is the center of its appeal? According to producer Sean Wolfington, one of the film's financiers and co-owners of Metanoia, it isn't one specific thing; the film is open-ended enough that different viewers respond in different ways.
"There was one day where we were videotaping viewers," Wolfington recalled, "and the person who was supposed to hold the mike didn't show up. So I ended up holding the microphone. And what surprised me was how while everybody was moved, they were moved in completely different ways, and for different reasons. I discovered more about the film through their insights than I had from just watching it myself."
For Monteverde, Bella speaks to the universal experience of family— whether that experience has been good or bad. "We all have families in our lives. Everyone can identify with that. Everyone has a family—whether its broken or solid—and that is one of the points that I explore in the film. Nina has a broken family; José has a wholesome family."
Perhaps the most notable thing about Bella's mainstream success in Toronto and elsewhere has to do with the film's subject matter. The drama in Bella centers largely on the crisis of a young waitress named Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who has just discovered that she is pregnant, and begins making plans for an abortion. Verástegui plays a chef named José who carries a burden from his own past, and who spends the day with Nina as she agonizes over her options.
Is Bella a "pro-life" film? That may depend on one's understanding of the term. It certainly isn't a tract or propaganda piece against abortion. It isn't meant to play only to pro-life audiences, or to confront directly the convictions of pro-choice viewers. Bella deals honestly and sympathetically with Nina's difficult situation and why she feels the way she does. It is sufficiently nuanced and unpreachy that viewers on both sides of the abortion debate have been impressed with its treatment of this difficult issue.
"I have people on both sides involved in the film—pro-life and pro-choice—that really love the movie," Monteverde noted, adding that he is "really happy" with the film's broad appeal. Bella has even been criticized by some pro-life activists for its lack of clear condemnation of abortion.
Yet certainly Bella is "pro-life" in a broad and far-reaching sense—one that might in principle be affirmed by viewers of differing views of abortion, but in the context of the film's events is pitted directly against the prospect of abortion. During the course of the film, Nina enumerates several reasons why abortion is her best option—reasons that may resonate particularly with pro-choice viewers, though pro-life viewers may sympathize as well. Against these reasons, Bella interposes, not more words or arguments, but a moment of revelation—a transcendent affirmation of life in its incalculable value.
Monteverde insisted that he "never intended to make this movie a picket sign or a political statement. There was no agenda... I wanted to make a film that makes people understand, not just judge, to understand what a woman goes through."
Severino reinforced this message of understanding over judgment: "Instead of making a film that was in any way an argument or in any way a propaganda... we were just trying to make a film that was rooted in love and understanding. Our hope is that when people leave our film on any side of an equation they're going to love more and judge less."
In particular, Monteverdi stressed the failure of many, especially men, to understand the pain and difficulty of an unwanted pregnancy. "I have seen the way it has affected their lives, and how much pain they go through," the writer–director said. "I also see how many men have no idea what a woman goes through when a woman goes through an unwanted pregnancy. They are naive. There is research on young men that have gone through this after that they don't feel anything, but then ask the woman and they are completely broken."
"Over half of the women in this world experience an unwanted pregnancy at some point in their life," said Wolfington. "We want to encourage people to reach beyond the slogans and the picket signs, and really listen to the experiences and the voices of women. And what we found is that a lot of people who face these decisions oftentimes make sporadic decisions out of fear, and as a result they feel that they have no choice."
With Bella, Wolfington said, the intention was "not to debate or to preach. The purpose of the film was to tell a true story, because this film was inspired by actually more than one true story and to try to do it honestly and effectively, but we're very happy that it has resulted in people engaging these questions."
Coincidentally, Bella arrives in theaters not long after a pair of other films about young women dealing with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies—one of which was another indie film about an unhappily pregnant waitress. That film was Waitress, the final film from the late writer-director Adrienne Shelly (who tragically was murdered last year shortly before the fim played at Sundance). The other, a very different film, was the raunchy comedy Knocked Up.
Intriguingly, though arguably neither of these films is "anti-abortion," they might both be said to be "pro-life" in ways similar to Bella, and reflecting at least indirectly on abortion. Though neither deals with the prospect of abortion as extensively as Bella, in both of the other films abortion is mentioned as an option only to be rejected. Furthermore, in both films abortion is mentioned as a possibility only by insensitive and callous individuals (just as in Bella Nina reports the baby's father telling her to "take care of it"). And Waitress in particular ends on an uplifting "pro-life" note strikingly similar to Bella.
Though neither Waitress nor Knocked Up was any sort of anti-abortion tract, the coincidence was notable enough to draw the ire of National Post columnist Chris Knight, who pointedly wondered why abortion wasn't more seriously considered in these films. (Will Knight be more appeased by Bella, in which the prospect of abortion is considered at much greater length? Or is it really one particular choice rather than another that he objects to?)
THE LATINO AS HERO
While the filmmakers disclaimed any agenda with regard to the theme of abortion, on a smaller scale both Monteverde and Verástegui did express a strong point of view regarding a morally significant issue in the culture at large and in their film: the portrayal of Latinos in the media.
"I went to film school," noted Monteverde, "and I was the only Latino in most of the classes. One time I took a course on Latinos in media— and I realize that Latinos were being stereotyped in the cinema. From the 1930s pretty much until today, always exploring the negative side of our culture: the prostitute, the drug dealer, or the Don-Juan Casanova. You never see a Latino as a hero—not a hero like Superman or Batman or any of those guys; a man of integrity, a man who sacrifices for his wife or children, a good citizen that serves his country. ... When I was the only Mexican in the class, I felt embarrassed about this stereotype. The Latinos as the bad guy, the dirty guy—even from my own people."
Verástegui's experience as an actor told the same story: "Always the banditos, the prostitute, the criminal, the thief—and, if you are good-looking, then you are the Don-Juan Latin lover; in other words, the womanizing liar. I was feeding that negative stereotype by the roles that I was choosing. So I realized that I was not being responsible as an actor I was just taking jobs only for the money and my career and the fame, not because I wanted to do something that had the potential to make a difference, and to elevate the dignity of Latinos in this country."
No more, Monteverde has vowed. "I really want to clean that image in every film I do from today until I die. If there is going to be a Latino in the film, he will not be the bad guy. Even if he is the bad guy, I will change his nationality, because our culture is being affected way too much by all those characters... I'm not saying there is not bad things in my culture. There are bad things in every culture in the world. But there are so many beautiful things in our culture to offer the world that have never been explored. So I feel that I have a mission, a calling to show the other side of the coin."
In José, Verástegui's character in Bella, the filmmakers have exactly the sort of Latino hero they wish there were more of at the movies. Although flashbacks establish him as a rising star in his field, his career is derailed by a tragic turn of events, and his life takes another direction entirely. Yet in his humbler circumstances José finds opportunities for selflessness, service to others, and ultimately a breathtaking act of sacrificial love—a turn of events so remarkable that some viewers have had difficulty accepting that anyone would make such a choice, though the filmmakers insist it really happened. (Bella is not a "true story" in a straightforward sense, but it combines elements of several stories from the filmmakers' lives.)
"I loved the fact that José was a man who had everything, he was at the top of the mountain in his career, he had the right things—and in one moment he lost it all," said Verástegui. "But in losing it all, he found everything that really matter in life, which is faith and family. We see this guy completely different—more mature, more sensitive, living for others, patient. He learned how to listen, how to come outside of himself, to help other people. It's not about him. He's willing to sacrifice everything to help someone."
"If I was more like José," said Wolfington, "and if people in general were more like José, and selflessly sought to help others and to make this world a better place, I think the world would be a better place."
THE IMPLICIT THEME OF FAITH
As with the film's pro-life resonances, the theme of faith in Bella is implicit, not overt. "In the background" is how Monteverde puts it. While he didn't want to make a religious film, "I did want to make it about where José was coming from—he was coming from a Catholic family. I wanted to show those people who wonder where this guy is coming from. We all come from our beliefs. It was important for me that this be in the film. When they have dinner, everyone does the sign of the cross—that was important to show that these characters come from a solid Catholic family that actually practices their faith. That's why [in José's parents' house] you see the Virgin of Guadalupe and on the left you have Joseph. You see him outside the abortion clinic praying the rosary. God didn't just send us into this world to try to be happy, God put us here to choose Him. His faith was something that sustained José. I wanted to show in a subtle way where his strength was coming from."
Even if the filmmakers do want their partnership to be just another production company in secular Hollywood, the name Metanoia (the Greek word for "conversion") wasn't chosen at random. Monteverde and Verástegui, like their business partners, are up-front about their own faith—something the filmmakers admit wasn't always important to them.
"I am a very proud Catholic," Monteverde said, "and I have been practicing my faith for the past couple of years. One problem that we have as Catholics is not the Church—it is Catholics themselves. We have such a rich, rich faith, and we don't know it. I didn't know it for many years. I didn't go to church for many years, and I didn't have the knowledge to really appreciate it. I realized that I was not obeying God. I didn't live my life according to the teachings of the Church or of God. I was crying and I didn't even know why. I realized that I was crying because I was trying to fill a hole—I felt empty, and I was trying to fill it with trash."
Verástegui likened his own conversion to the experiences of his character José. "I had a transformation as well," he said. "Even though I grew up Catholic, I didn't practice very much my faith, because I wasn't formed. so I didn't know my faith very well. I was going to Mass, you know, once a year, and praying every night, I have my faith, I believe in God, but I didn't really know my faith."
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