Would you go to see a film about a pregnant New York waitress from a deprived background – estranged from her family, dumped by her lover, fired for being late, and about to arrange an abortion? Really?
If you said no, you would certainly be affirmed in your decision by critics at the top Entertainment sections. Independent upstart Metanoia Films’ first effort (Bella, 2006) was roundly trashed, as this sample from Rotten Tomatoes shows:
- “Bella is certainly a sweet, life-affirming picture, but it’s just not authentic or captivating enough to justify its wildly concocted scenario.” – Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times -
“A barely disguised anti-abortion tract, Bella is simple-minded, heavy-handed and as subtle as a gorilla in a tutu.” – Tom Long, Detroit News -
“… defiantly unsubtle, structurally clunky specimen. ” – Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly -
“A Mexican movie in which the outcome is never in doubt, the scenes are endless — sorry, we meant poetic– and the false beard on the central character’s face looks as though it could use a little extra gum.” – Desson Thompson, Washington Post
All from the “cream of the crop” critics, compiled at Rotten Tomatoes, where the film averaged a low 36% rating
New York Times reporter Stephen Holden dismissed Bella as a “saccharine trifle” and worse:
If Bella (the title doesn’t make sense until the last scene) is a mediocre cup of mush, the response to it suggests how desperate some people are for an urban fairy tale with a happy ending, no matter how ludicrous.
The Toronto Star didn’t get around to running a review of Bella by Susan Walker until April 11, 2008. But under the circumstances, why did the Star run a review at all? Ah, there is a story in that …
But what did the audience think?
Bella prompted a sudden second look when it won the 2006 Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice award – that, of course, is the audience rating, not the critics’ rating. As Hollywood Reporter (September 27, 2006) announced breathlessly
Hollywood handicappers always think they know who stands to win top honors at film festivals, but as we saw in Toronto earlier this month surprises are always possible. Going into the festival, absolutely no one, including the team of filmmakers that made “Bella,” ever imagined it would capture the People’s Choice Award voted on by festival audiences. Now in the wake of “Bella’s” breakthrough victory, it’s being screened for domestic distributors whose interest in acquiring the heartwarming drama is understandably greater than it was only a few weeks earlier.
And Rotten Tomatoes grudgingly conceded,
Consensus: A sweet, but ultimately pedestrian drama. Critics labeled Bella as a simplistic and mostly pedestrian, but positive word of mouth gave this tiny indie surprising theatrical legs.
Indeed, Bella soared in audience popularity in 2007, winning Best Picture and Best Actor at the 2008 MovieGuide Awards. It was also #1 in a New York Times’ readers’ poll, and at Yahoo and Fandango (WorldNetDaily, November 3, 2007) , as well winning as many other awards and honours – and doing just fine at the box office.
One reason Bella was trashed by elite critics is that they apparently perceived the film as anti-choice or even anti-abortion. To them, that meant that it was unrealistic about the limited and possibly unlivable future of working class people.
True, Bella has been enthusiastically plugged by prolife and profamily groups, but the film is in no sense an anti-abortion tract. The word abortion is not used, though the subject is discussed (“termination).” Jose obviously does not want his new friend Nina to abort her baby, but he refrains from offering “arguments” against it. He has a much larger project in mind, as we shall see.
The most interesting question about the film’s popularity is, why didn’t the elite critics’ condemnation matter much? Two reasons, I suspect: Not only is there a huge divide between elite culture and popular culture in North America, but elite culture is losing its hold on the Internet, which is fast becoming the primary medium of communication. For example, recent stats (April 15, 2008) show that time spent at news media Web sites is declining. Web users merely drive by and then go on to seek a variety of alternative views.
Bella and the design of life
If I told you exactly how I think Bella relates to intelligent design, I would spoil critical scenes and, – worse – tempt you to read it as some kind of an allegory. So let me hint: Nina starts out assuming that life is determined in advance, and it is very limited. No one cares, and no one will ever care what she does. Therefore, she must have an abortion.
She doesn’t exactly “want” an abortion. It would be more accurate to say that she cannot imagine a future in which she did not have one. An abortion will accomplish the only goal she can imagine: set her back on the treadmill to nowhere instead of tipping her into the abyss of nothingness. And that is her future – her full stop is delayed a while.
We are not encouraged to judge Nina for her past or proposed choices, but rather to see them in the context of her limited expectations.
But Jose, the chef at Nina’s former workplace, has plunged into the abyss himself. He has emerged, knowing that life is not as Nina thinks. On the contrary, there is a design to life, and that design is much larger and more promising than we usually imagine. If we cooperate with it, we become our best selves. If we don’t, we wander, aimless and self-destructive, forever bound by limits of our own making. Jose impulsively walks away from his frantic kitchen and sets out to demonstrate that to Nina.
He senses that he is one of the few men who can truly relate to the dilemma Nina and many other pregnant single women face. His own life, like theirs, was forever altered by the outcome of a few moments of unwise choices. After Nina learns Jose’s story, she will not likely ever say to him, “You don’t understand what it is like.” He does understand.
Bella avoids tipping over into mere sentiment in large part because Jose’s close family are the survivors of his tragedy. Their relationships are all they were left with – love among the ruins.
Bella is a beautiful film, and I can think of no higher praise than to say it is loved by the right people – and hated by the right people as well. Only at the very end do we discover the meaning of the title, and I will not spoil that for you.
Redemption motif: Redeeming the Latin lead
For Eduardo Verastegui, co-owner of production company Metanoia Films, the role of Jose was the outcome of a profound personal discovery and commitment. As Deborah Gyapong relates, in Western Catholic Reporter (May 28, 2007),
Verastegui had reached the zenith of Mexican celebrity as a soap opera star and singer who had toured at least 13 countries to sold-out concerts. He’d appeared as Jennifer Lopez’s love interest in her popular music video Ain’t It Funny. His growing Hollywood TV and movie credits included the starring role in the 20th Century Fox movie Chasing Papi and a co-starring role in the independent film Meet Me in Miami. He’d been listed as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world in People en Espanol.
So far, Verastegui was well on the way to a career as a conventional Latin star, but
In Los Angeles, while studying English, he found himself drawn to a deeper faith in Christ through his devout Catholic teacher. He began to see all the reasons he had wanted to be an actor – fame, money and pleasure – as empty and vain. He realized he’d been typecast into portraying the unfaithful, lying Latin lover and playing those parts promoted negative stereotypes. The media portrayal of Hispanics in general demeaned both men and women, resembling nothing like the dignity and beauty of his mother and sisters in Mexico.
He understood he had hurt people through the work he had done and the messages in his movies were “poisoning society.”
“It broke my heart,” the actor told the annual Rose Dinner in Ottawa May 10, following the annual March for Life in Ottawa.
“I realized I had offended God.”
Verastegui spent months in tears, sold his goods, and vowed never to play another role that demeaned his culture.
Later, he ran into director Alejandro Monteverdi, co-writer of the screenplay with Patrick Million, and they formed an independent film company to produce the film, which was shot in New York in 24 days.
Bella official site
Bella Fan Club
Bella box office