A Decidedly Unsappy BellaAMANDA SHAW
Compelling and beautiful, this sort of love story is no fairy tale.
Bella, unexpected winner of the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, was released in theaters across the United States last weekend -- and, despite appearances, a chick flick is exactly what it's not.
In the words of writer and director Alejandro Monteverde, Bella is a "love story that breaks the barriers of a traditional romance." Breaking the barriers of romance and tradition is hardly unique in cinema, of course, but rarely have they been broken with such charm and purpose.
The main action in Bella takes place over twenty-four hours, when Nina (Tammy Blanchard), an attractive and significantly single waitress in New York City, learns she is pregnant. Through an unfortunate turn of events, she is fired that same morning from the Mexican restaurant where she works, and one of her coworkers, José (Eduardo Verástegui), deserts his post as chef to run after her. Impulsive, yes, but sometimes the heart has reasons.
Bella has been hailed as a "cinematic jewel," "a true inspiration," a small masterpiece that may win an Oscar. But some critics have not been so easily pleased.
"It is not hard to see why Bella, a saccharine trifle . . . won the People's Choice Award," Stephen Holden wrote last week in the New York Times. "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."
"Saccharine trifle" and "mediocre mush" are a little strong. And yet Holden is actually getting at the heart of Bella's message and pointing to its potential, in his convoluted way. While the film may not wow mainstream media critics, it proved in Toronto last year, just as it is proving now in American theaters, that it can touch ordinary people. And that is just what its makers intended.
Bella's pro-life message is inescapable. Yet its producers did not intend it to be Sunday-school entertainment, and there is no trace of Salvation Army drumbeating. The Christian viewer might imagine that providence maps the plot and grace propels the action, but God's name gets just two faint mentions -- in a dinnertime blessing and in the opening proverb: "My grandmother used to say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.'"
God may have laughed -- others certainly did -- when Monteverde and his lead actor Verástegui began planning Bella in 2004. Both are passionate Christians, and faith prompted them to do something beautiful for God. Verástegui, who once led the fast life of a Latin pop star and heartthrob, will never forget his day of conversion:
Bella was not made to preach to the choir, however. In fact, it was not made to preach at all. As Monteverde stresses, he took pains "never [to] come across as judgmental. If we come across that way, we lose the whole purpose of the film."
As the film opens, Nina learns that she is pregnant, unemployed, and very much alone. More than anything, she needs the support of friendship, and José -- the chef who follows her out the door -- gives that unhesitatingly.
But what could become a dialogue of tears and caresses is kept decidedly unsappy for most of the film. José and Nina elbow onto a subway car where an impromptu rap concert starts up, they pass through a flea market with all its claustrophobic tawdry, and they stop in a bodega and witness a shouting match. All very New York, and more scruffy than saccharine.
Gradually, José learns that Nina plans to "have it taken care of," because, as she puts it, an abortion is clearly what's best for her. He does not lecture -- just gently suggests adoption -- and initially she is unswayed. We follow the couple back to the house of José's parents and meet his lively but caring Latino family. And with Nina, we discover that adoption can form beautiful relationships. More poignantly, though, we realize that José too has had to suffer -- and his suffering is not unlike Nina's own. For both, however, there is hope: hope of life and hope of love.
In the New York Times, Holden criticized the film for its happy, fairy-tale ending. But, at the same time, he complained that it doesn't give the "slightest suggestion of romance between [José] and Nina."
As it happens, that's rather the point -- and the way the film escapes the saccharine trap. Having José marry Nina, Nina keep the baby, and both move to a cottage on the beach would have been the tempting pro-life, pro-family conclusion. And it would have left Bella indistinguishable from all the other fairy-tale films.
There's the 1997 romantic comedy Fools Rush In, for instance, a kind of pro-life lite: A one-night stand results in pregnancy, the couple decides to forego abortion and get married, and after a string of culture clashes, true love finally blooms. Granted, the father of Nina's child is out of the picture, but José, with his wide eyes and wider heart, would have made a fine husband.
Or there's Love with the Proper Stranger. This 1963 film depicts a young musician taking his short-term girlfriend to a back-alley abortionist only to be appalled by the gleaming metal instruments. He whisks her away, recognizes his responsibility, and, after much heartache and a little banjo playing, eventually wins her hand. Happily ever after, The End.
But Bella is different. As Monteverde explains:
The ending is happy because the most precious thing is protected: With José's support, Nina gives her child life. And, at least by the end, that's what the audience wants. Monteverde never has to say, "Abortion kills children" or "Abortion hurts women," but we would be callous indeed not to glimpse these realities as the plot glances back to the tragedy of José's past and ahead to what might unfold. José leads Nina into a women's clinic in one of these flash-forwards, and her pain -- physical and so much more -- is razor sharp. Seeing what might be, both Nina and the audience learn to shudder. "If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable," T.S. Eliot once wrote, and I believe this temporal dynamic is key to the film -- and key to life. Time, Bella shows, is hope.
Bella's ending is happy because there is peace: not perfection, for Nina, as far as we know, is still struggling to make her way alone, and José, no doubt, still suffers from his past wounds. But real life isn't about perfection; it is about the day-to-day struggle, which, like Nina's pregnancy, often comes unasked and unplanned. It is about the love that is given, more than the love that is received. Or, rather, it is about the love -- self-sacrificial and redemptive -- that is received in the very act of giving.
Compelling and beautiful, this sort of love story is no fairy tale.
Bella (The Official Trailer)
Amanda Shaw. "A Decidedly Unsappy Bella." On The Square First Things (October 31, 2007).
Reprinted with permission of First Things.
Amanda Shaw is a junior fellow at First Things.
Copyright © 2007 First Things
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