Bella is a decidedly quiet, pro-life film that audiences from all sides of the debate can learn from and appreciate. Its appeal will not be left unfelt by viewers that support abortion rights for it doesn’t accost them with dogma or insult them with unrealistic characters. Rather, its compassionate, non-preachy, and gentle approach to communicating its pro-life message allows it to be silently slipped into their shoe unseen like the proverbial pebble. Christian, anti-abortion viewers will like how elements of their faith are delicately woven into the fabric of this movie and they can learn from its graceful approach to unwed pregnancy and abortion. In an age of seemingly ceaseless clashes between the two sides of the abortion debate, Bella takes on the difficult challenge of infusing the battle zone with the beautiful message of redemption. Does it deliver?
The setting is a restaurant in Manhattan and centers around its cook, José (played by Eduardo Verástegui), and a recently fired, near penniless waitress named Nina (played by Tammy Blanchard). The same day of her firing, Nina discovers that she is pregnant. Upon sharing her intention to seek an abortion with José, he decides to risk his job and spend the day with her. He takes her to a restaurant, where through a connection he is able to get her a job, and then on to his family’s house near the beach. Though the events of the movie are mainly focused on this day, an opening sequence tells us that José wasn’t always a cook. Subsequent flashbacks throughout the rest of the movie reveal that he is haunted by his own “pebble in the shoe” – a tragedy that refuses that leave him. Without saying as much, the movie subtly communicates that José is seeking to move beyond this past. In Nina’s situation, he may have found this path.
Keep in mind that the movie, directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde in 2006, is independently produced, so the quality of filming is not the typical slick, Hollywood fare. At times, the camera lunges in a little too close to its actors, making the viewers feel a bit dizzy. This gives the movie a very raw feel, unpolished feel. Yet, given the subject matter, this is not necessarily unwelcome. A lack of pretension even harmonizes better with the untidy subject of abortion than perhaps a more polished piece. This earthiness may be refreshing to some viewers that have grown weary of the impersonal, commercial approaches prevalent today, but it also may come across as simply clumsy to others.
Truly, the film’s greatest strength lies in the characters of José and Nina and their power to connect with the viewers. Admittedly, José seems to be too good to be true. Yet, perhaps, he is in that stage of grief – and his mother indicates that he was once much worse off – where he has rejoined the world of the living, yet is still plagued by easily triggered, painful memories. Being on the constant lookout of opportunities to rid himself of these through atoning good deeds, he comes across almost savior-like. Still, he is likable and his quiet charm works to dispel the viewers’ incredulity. He gently leads Nina to help and rest, first, at a friend’s restaurant and then, in the familial love and warmth of his parents’ home. All the while he listens to her struggles in such a way that viewers detect he is no stranger to grief. He offers no shallow words of encouragement. He simply listens and grieves with her. Behold, a pebble!
One particular exchange between the two serves to both instruct pro-life viewers and build credibility with everyone else. José asks Nina if she has considered adoption. She flatly refuses to answer, telling him that she doesn’t want to talk about it. He respects her and doesn’t press the point, remaining silent instead. In doing this, José’s intentions are legitimized in the both Nina’s and the viewers’ eyes. A trust is built so that though some audience members may disagree with his encouragement for her to consider adoption, they do not impugn his motives. He truly cares for her. The pebble begins to slip in.
José does indeed help Nina with her immediate needs for a job and rest, but what she is given in addition is unexpected. In the security of his parents’ home, Nina is able to truly grieve. In a poignant scene, when José’s mother is downstairs crying with her son over his own tragedy, Nina allows the full torrent of her grief to pour out into a cleansing bath. She is refreshed. Then, her cup begins to be filled as she sees the love of José’s family and hears their story of infertility and adoption. All of this is unknown to Nina, her small family being fragmented by the death of her father when she was just twelve. Her cup had been emptied long ago. In them, she sees what she could not have known and is humbly handed a picture of the love an adopted child might experience. What was inconceivable to Nina under the heavy weight of her distress and past, now seems possible. The pebble slips in.
If there is any pressure – it’s the juxtaposition of José’s tragedy and Nina’s pending abortion. Extreme pro-choice supporters might recoil at this. What they cannot complain of is any downplaying of the fear and suffering of a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. Nina’s story is believable. The movie simply aligns the two stories and respects the audience’s ability to come to their own conclusions. They should note that neither tragedy, José’s or Nina’s, is painted as murder (and this might anger the extremes on the pro-life side). The juxtaposition, in fact, might lead some to see Nina’s as an accident like Jose’s. After over forty years of bitter fighting, accusations, and one-sided presentations for and against abortion, this is a welcome approach. Nothing is more annoying than a film that forces a one-dimensional argument on viewers. That this movie displays restraint here cannot go unnoticed and even the most ardent abortion rights advocate should be touched. More pebbles, perhaps?
José is an embodiment of the pro-life argument of this film. Being the living, breathing, grieving, and compassionate vehicle for the message gives it a power that no words ever could. This is instructive for us that seek to defend life – for it neatly parallels how we have been called to be the living vehicle for the Gospel of our Lord. José’s willingness to enter into Nina’s grief and how he pro-actively seeks to bring some immediate comfort provides a subtle but tangible defense for life – mothers as well as children. The pro-life community can see in him how such flesh and blood gentleness is a potent tool against the suffering, confusion, and desperation of a woman who intends to abort her child. A gentle word turns away wrath, indeed! The movie itself, then, is like its main character. More than any overt arguments, this gives viewers a category for the compassionate and caring motives of those who stand against abortion.
In the end, Bella invites audiences to find its gems of life and redemption for themselves. People on all sides of the battle can put down their arms and enter. For some, they will learn how to better wrap their message in grace and mercy. Others will gain a deeper understanding for what truly motivates their opponents. Most importantly, pebbles will be put in the shoes of those that are truly open – pebbles that might be a reminder someday that adoption is an option. A beautiful option, in fact, as expressed when the final scene flashes forward to a happy, weeping Nina meeting her daughter for the first time. Her name is Bella and José is her adoptive father.