Bella | Steven Greydanus for August/September 2007 Catholic World Report | Part 2 | Part 1
Like José, Verástegui was a rising start in his own field prior to his conversion. At eighteen he began his career in show business as a member of the popular Latin American boy band Kairo. After that, he began acting in "the novelas, you know, soap operas in Mexico. Because as an actor you don't have so many options over there. If you want to make a living as an actor [in Mexico], you either do soap opera or... soap opera. You're stuck with that." Verástegui moved to Miami—"the capital of Latin America," he joked— and recorded a solo album. Then he went to Hollywood, did some more television, and made a feature film, Chasing Papi. Yet, despite a healthy career, he reported, "I wasn't satisfied with anything. I was a guy who was completely lost. I realized that the reasons I wanted to be in this career were very superficial reasons. All about the fame, the money, the pleasures. I was seduced by this environment."
Verástegui credits the grace of his conversion to his mother's prayers. "I'm the oldest. I have two younger sisters. My mother told my father one day, 'Our son is very rebellious—he's lost, he doesn't listen to us any more, my words don't touch his heart any more. But if my words don't touch his heart, my prayers will touch his heart one day.' And she became a warrior, a prayer warrior, and never gave up the hope that one day I would come back, just like the prodigal son."
That day finally came, Verástegui said, when a friend, his English tutor, began calling him on what he believed and how he was living. "She started asking me questions: 'What's the purpose of life? Why are you doing what you're doing? Why do you want to be an actor? Why are you doing these films? If you're promoting all these lies'... She started asking me all these questions, and knocked me off my horse, and I saw everything." Struggling with his new-found religious awareness, Verástegui turned to a priest friend, Legionary Father Juan Rivas. "I told him that all these things I was going through, I did my first real confession, and he gave me some books."
One book that Verástegui particularly credits with his deepening faith was Scott and Kimberly Hahn's conversion story, Rome Sweet Home. "That's the book that sent me to Mass every day," he acknowledged. "From once a year, then once a week, and after I closed the book, it was so real and it so impacted me in a very deep way, that after I closed the book, I said, 'I will be with you, Lord, for the rest of my life every day.' And I started going to Mass every day."
There was just one problem: Verástegui was convinced that his newfound devotion was incompatible with his old career aspirations. "All of a sudden that became my purpose in life—to know and love God, and to grow in holiness. And I thought, 'That's impossible to do in Hollywood.' "
A MISSIONARY IN THE JUNGLE OF HOLLYWOOD
Going back to Fr. Rivas, Verástegui recalled telling him, "Father, I've solved everything. I'm giving up my career. This is a place I can't survive." Verástegui's thought: to head for the mission field, possibly Brazil. "I want to go out into the jungle, to the Amazon, to discern what God wants from me. Because I need to clean all this dirt that I had in my soul for all those years. I don't think he's calling me to be a priest—maybe a cloistered monk. I have no idea. All I know is I'm ready to leave. I just want to ask you for your advice. What should I do? What do you think?"
Fr. Rivas was "the only priest I knew," Verástegui said, "and he just laughed. He said, 'No, no, no, you're not going anywhere. We have plenty of missionaries over there in that jungle. But you know what, we have very few here in Hollywood. And this is a bigger jungle. Our Lord put you right there for a reason. You stay there."
The upshot was that Verástegui stayed in Hollywood—but went years without accepting any work. "I wanted to tell stories," he said, "and those stories need to have the potential not only to entertain but also to make a difference and touch people's hearts and to light a candle in the audience." Such stories, though, were few and far between. "Literally I didn't even have money to pay my rent the next month, because for three years I couldn't work at the things that were offered me... Now if I'm being faithful to God, and the other success comes, then it's a blessing. Thanks be to God. But if it doesn't come, you can never compromise your faith to obtain what the world thinks success is, because it doesn't come from God."
Eventually Verástegui recognized that, as an actor, he would never have the level of control he felt he needed. "As an actor you don't have so much power," he said. "You have to submit yourself to the director, to the studio. I realized that the only way you can control the message is only if you become a producer. So I had two options: Either I'm going to be waiting until some offer comes to me that has the ingredients that I wanted to do, or I make my own film with the things that I wanted to do, which were very simple. It wasn't about me any more. It wasn't about what I want, but what the Lord wants me to do."
At the time, though, Verástegui was alone. "It was tough because at that time I didn't know Alejandro, I didn't know my business partners, I didn't know anybody. I was completely by myself."
At last, in 2004, at a weekday Mass, Verástegui met Leo Severino, an attorney working at Fox Entertainment, and Severino left his job at Fox to become Verástegui's agent. Later, the two later met Monteverde, and the "three amigos" together founded Metanoia Films. For Verástegui, Monteverde's script for Bella was worth the three-year wait. "The first time I read it, I fell in love, because I knew it was coming from a good place," he said. "It was amazing working with someone who was on the same page. As an actor, it's very frustrating when you don't see material out there... it's very hard to find a writer that is in Hollywood that is talented, that has skills, but at the same time has integrity and the same values." According to Monteverde, the feeling was mutual. "Working with [Verástegui] was a great experience because he is a great human being. It's just amazing to work with people that have so much love for life. Not just love his own life but love for others. In taking that into consideration, he was able to bring that love for others into his own character and to his own character's love for the other characters."
In order to make Bella a reality, though, the amigos needed something else: partners with money. "So we're like, 'Okay, Lord, if you want us to be here in Hollywood and to make films to glorify You and to honor You, let's do it," said Verástegui. "If you don't, and you want us to sell tacos in Mexico or whatever, so be it."
How did they get the funding? Verástegui feels that a papal blessing from Pope John Paul II—or two—may have been of assistance.
The invitation to come to Rome came from the actor's friend Fr. Rivas, who called from Rome to ask how things were going. "I said, 'Well, Father, we have the company, we have the script, everything is in place, but we don't have the investors yet. And I've been turning down all these other projects.' I'm telling the priest all these things, and he tells me, 'Do you want to come to Rome and meet the Holy Father?' "Next thing you know," Verástegui continues, "I'm in front of the Holy Father, and I'm asking, 'Holy Father, Please pray for us. We have a company called Metanoia Films, and pray for this mission.' He gave me a blessing."
Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Verástegui closed his eyes and started praying—still standing before the Pope. "He gave me a second blessing," Verástegui said, admitting, "Then the bodyguards came and took me away. There were like eighty people behind me."
The blessing(s) may have done the trick, though. It was only a little over a week later that they met the investors who financed the film. "They gave us the money, and we went to New York and we shot the film in 24 days over there. It was just a miracle really. It was amazing because everybody thought, there's no way you guys can produce the film. You've never made anything before."
HAPPY ACCIDENTS AND COINCIDENCES
Miracle or not, Bella did benefit from a number of happy accidents and coincidences that contribute to the effectiveness of the finished film. One of these involved a butterfly motif, which appears in the first half of the film in a key scene. At the end of the film, the butterfly motif reappears in a different form—seemingly intentionally, though Monteverde says it just happened.
"The butterfly at the end of the movie—now the butterfly wraps the whole movie, but that was not in the script. It just happened magically—there was a guy with the butterfly." Another even more crucial departure occurred literally at the whim of a child. "We had a dialogue at the end of the film that was a good 20 minutes," said Wolfington. "Beautiful dialogue, but probably kind of on the nose and preachy. Anyway, the five-year-old actress didn't want to participate. She decided that she wanted to play. So that was out of our control. And we filmed her playing. She was doing cartwheels.
And the cinematographer just asked Eduardo to do cartwheels with her and play with her on the beach." "She didn't want to keep working," recalled Monteverde. "She said, 'I'm finished for the day. I want to go play and she run away from the set.' I was in complete despair. I thought of firing her. I didn't have the money to reshoot all the scenes with her. So I told the camera guy, 'Just go shoot her playing anything you can. Then I told Robert, 'Just go play with her—see what happens, I give up.'"
The resulting scene, ironically, is perhaps the key to the film's success. "At first I wanted to show their relationship through dialogue," said Monteverde, "but I ended up just showing the relationship through playing—it just came through naturally and so it came out even better."
Wolfington agreed. "Fortunately, things didn't go the way we scripted them, because I think that particular scene helps make a positive impact at the end of the film more than if there was fifteen minutes of dialogue." One scene, of course, doesn't make a film. Bella's success ultimately rests on the achievements of the filmmakers, particularly with respect to the low-key script, Monteverde's subtle storytelling style, and strong acting from the principals, especially Verástegui and leading lady Tammy Blanchard, whose outstanding performance as the troubled Nina is crucial to the film's credibility.
Although the film leaves a great deal untold about its characters and their circumstances, and leaves viewers room to draw conclusions and inferences rather than spelling out everything, this approach only enhances the film's emotional resonance. This is apparently characteristic of Monteverde's philosophy of storytelling. "When you give too much information, you don't feel as much," he said. "In Bella, you don't have a lot of information, but you feel."
The makers of Bella feel strongly that a similar sense of restraint is necessary when dealing with troubling or problematic subject matter. "There's ways to get the point across in a very effective and moving way," Severino said. "Our only concern is to try not to do it in a way that our Lord himself wouldn't do, a way that would violate the principles we believe."
"We never want to use evil means to achieve good ends," Wolfington concurred. "We don't want to ask the actors and actresses on the set to compromise their values and integrity in order to show people falling. We don't want to have the film lead people in the wrong direction because they're excited and entertained about a scene that shows a man or a woman falling just so we can show them getting back up. It's not an easy rope to walk, and I admire anybody who tries to do it."
This is not to say the filmmakers recommend avoiding troubling subject matter altogether. "We want to tell real stories about real people, and while we want to inspire people, we also want to entertain them," said Wolfington. "Because it's hard to inspire them if you can't keep their attention and entertain them. We also want to promote love, but in real life sometimes it's hard to see the candle if it's already daytime. Sometimes the candle is that much brighter in the context of the dark. So if we're going to keep it real, we want to show love but sometimes you have to show it in the context of opposite. We want to show hope, but sometimes it's clearer in the context of despair. In real life, we're not perfect people. So we fall. But we also want to show not just the fall but also the redemption."
To seek success in Hollywood while sticking to one's principles is a tall order, to say the least. "It's a battle," said Verástegui, adding, "In any other place, any other environment, it's always going to be a battle—in politics, in Wall Street, in schools, in colleges, every place. It's a battle between good and evil, and you have to choose which side you want to be."
THE FUTURE OF METANOIA FILMS
What's next for Metanoia Films? Severino summed up the proposal in typical Hollywood pitch mode: "a period piece in the 1920s—Life is Beautiful meets Braveheart of Mexico, where 25,000 martyrs were made when a maniac got into power in Mexico and decided to make all freedom of speech and religion illegal." The main character, Severino added, may be Blessed Miguel Pro. (The result might not be for all ages, but "we don't want to go over the top with violence.")
First, though, Metanoia has Bella's theatrical release to think about. "Bella is not King Kong or Superman," said Verástegui. "We don't have these big budgets behind us. This is just a film with a small budget but with a lot of heart and soul. We believe in this so much because we feel this is a call from our holy father John Paul II. We just want to show it to everybody."
For all their enthusiasm about Bella and future projects, the filmmakers maintain a sense of perspective. Mindful of Mother Teresa's maxim about faithfulness and success, they regularly downplay the significance of the past or future successes. More than once, and by more than one party, the theoretical possibility of every print of Bella being destroyed and the film never being seen again was cited as a way of emphasizing that there are bigger issues than any one film.
Verástegui made the point this way. While preparing to shoot the film, he revealed, he made a fateful choice: to visit an abortion clinic as research for his role.
"I thought it was going to be very simple," he said. "I was very naive. I thought I was going to arrive in the morning, with a few papers and a pen... Now, when I arrived that day, I forgot about the film. I was in shock when I saw all these fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-old young girls going in. Next thing I saw this little group of people outside, trying to convince them not to do it."
Approaching the group, Verástegui found himself being asked to talk to a Latino couple who spoke no English. "I had no idea what I was going to say. I was very nervous," he reported. Then the couple recognized him—from his soap opera roles. "They were from Mexico. Even though I did them ten years ago, they repeat them in television forever."
Verástegui wound up talking to the couple for the better part of an hour, and gave the mother a miraculous medal. "We talked about life, faith, Mexico, dreams, about everything. I don't even remember what I said. I gave her a little teddy bear. Next thing you know I said something and she was touched. And she leaves, and she didn't go inside the clinic. So I told her the next day, 'Hey, I'm here to help you, anything I can do to help you, if it's money or whatever. Consider me your friend.' "
Shortly after that, Verástegui left for New York to shoot the film. "I came back a few months later," he continued, "and I received a call. And it was this man who was with her. And he tells me, I have great news. My baby was born yesterday. And I want to ask your permission, because I want to call him Eduardo. And I couldn't even talk, man."
Verástegui went to the hospital to visit the couple and their new baby. "It was amazing. I went to the hospital and met the baby, and carried him in my arms—the way how he was looking at me, and I was calling him Eduardito, and I was singing, dancing with him. It changed my life completely. Because I didn't plan to do that. I just thought I was going to do my research as an actor. I never thought that by the grace of God I was going be used as an instrument to say something to this young lady to touch her heart. And the next thing you know I'm dancing with Eduardito.
"If this film tomorrow disappears and it burns and nobody sees it again," he concluded, "the fact that one baby is alive by the grace of God, I will rejoice in the Lord."
Visit the Official Bella Website: www.BellaTheMovie.com
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Steven Greydanus frequently reviews films for Catholic World Report. The online home of his film writing is DecentFilms.com.
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