When I read Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Bella, I assumed it was reflexively negative because of the movie’s POV. He dismissed it as “a saccharine trifle,” “a mediocre cup of mush,” and, more generously wrote, “nothing — not even significant plot glitches and inconsistencies — is allowed to get in the way of its bear-hugging embrace of sweetness and light.”
Then I read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s review in CT and wondered if hers was obligingly positive for the same reason. She points out some weaknesses, but finds things to praise—the interesting scenery, the way “time is layered.” She concludes, “I can see why the film won a standing ovation and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. If Bella affects others the way it did me, that’s only the first in a long line of awards that are coming its way.”
I saw the film Thursday afternoon, by myself. Movie-going alone on a weekday afternoon is not something that I normally do, but as I identified in unexpected ways with the story, I was glad I’d chosen the time and place I had. I left the theater in tears, for reasons I’d guess would be unique to women who’ve faced unplanned pregnancies.
First let me say that I loved the richly textured atmosphere created by the Mexican family that embraces the unwed mother, for it is within the context of loving families that women and their children are nurtured best, and the warmth of this family wraps around the lonely woman. But the story was a bit contrived. The final heroic scene, for instance, is framed by a sign that says Lifeguard on Duty. There’s also too much unlikely intersection, kind of like Crash without the action. (Then again, people who’ve survived tragedy, as the protagonist has, often see life more clearly.) The story lopes along so slowly that I found myself getting impatient, and I generally prefer dialogue driven movies to frenetic adventure tales.
Mathewes-Green thought the lead actress, Tammy Blanchard’s performance “graceful,” but I found the actress unconvincing. She didn’t inhabit the anguish of her situation the way a more seasoned actress might have, and, more importantly, the way an unemployed, uneducated, unwed pregnant woman would. The male lead, Eduardo Verástegui, reminded me of Jim Caviezel, a pretty boy actor who depends too much on the intensity of his own earnest gaze. Verastegui has a sweetness about him, however, that Caviezel lacks.
Mathewes-Green outlines the actor’s history: “Verástegui is an interesting character in his own right. For years he was a hugely successful soap opera star and singer, ‘the Brad Pitt of Mexico.’ But after experiencing a deeper commitment to his Roman Catholic faith, Verástegui began to regret his part in reinforcing adulterous ‘Latin lover’ stereotypes. In a speech this past May to the annual pro-life Rose Dinner in Ottawa, Verástegui said that some of his earlier work had sent messages that are “poisoning society.” He went on, ‘It broke my heart. I realized that I was offending God.’ He summed up, ‘I wasn’t born to be famous or rich. I was born to know and love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.‘ ”
Words spoken with the conviction of someone who’s been to the heights and found them wanting. How could a fellow pilgrim not root for him?
The movie coincided with my experience in more ways than are obvious. Nina finds out she is pregnant and her friend Jose’ enters her dilemma, finds purpose in it and shows her another way to go. They spend time with his family and at the beach. This is my story. I ran into the guy I married on the day I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn child. We went to the beach and talked about my predicament. Like Nina, I said I was not ready to be anyone’s parent. Abortion was never an option for me, but the guy predicted rightly that I would keep my baby. After my baby was born, we spent a lot of time together surrounded by my loving family.
In both my own and Nina’s situation a man comes to the rescue (although the movie doesn’t end as one might expect). Abortion reinforces male bad behavior, as I alluded to in “A Laughing Child in Exchange for Sin.” It is right and good that men come to the rescue of women and children. This element of the film is a good metaphor for what ought to happen in society. It would be wonderful if chivalry re-emerged as a reigning value, if men really did lead by putting the well-being of women and children before their own lusts, and/or, absent that, if they atoned for their sins (as Jose’ does in this film) by doing a better job of nurturing the single-parent families within their communities.
I could write a book about how the circumstances of of my son’s birth impacted my family, each of us in unique and personal ways that I won’t discuss here.
The cost of Nina’s pregnancy is merely hinted at in this film. It is a sweet movie, with a bit too much message and too little of the mess of real life. I wish it had been grittier, but it is a sweet story, and we need those, don’t we? They inspire us to live beyond ourselves. They remind us of God’s tender grace.
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