WASHINGTON -- An invited audience including Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez gathered at the National Geographic Society's auditorium in Washington Monday night for a screening of "Bella," an independently produced feature film. No mere movie, it offers hope for the beleaguered anti-abortion movement to reverse the political tide running against it.
This was the eighth such screening in Washington. Monday night's audience reflected the reaction in more than 100 showings nationwide: an emotional experience for a stunning exhibition of cinema art that unexpectedly won a Toronto Film Festival award. It is no propaganda film but a dramatic depiction of choices facing an unmarried pregnant woman.
"Bella," unknown to the general public, has generated excitement and anticipation in conservative Catholic and other anti-abortion circles. The problem is getting the film in movie theaters around the country for its public premiere early next April. That is never easy for an independent film with no box office names, but the problems are magnified when its message runs counter to the social mores of Hollywood.
"Bella" arrives in an environment that has grown bleak for enemies of abortion. The Democratic Party has become so much the party of abortion rights that of 41 freshmen Democrats elected to the House, only three are anti-abortion. Pro-life forces in the House suffered a net loss of 13 members. That means statutory restrictions on abortion, which must be renewed by each Congress, are now in serious jeopardy.
The loss of numerical strength on Capitol Hill reflects a public relations and political victory by the abortion lobby. Republican politicians tend to give only lip service to the issue, typified by President George W. Bush's silence on abortion. Republican candidates have accepted support from pro-life forces -- and then kept quiet about abortion, leaving the field open to pro-choice advocates.
Thus, the anti-abortion movement sees "Bella" as providential. It is entertainment, not propaganda. Although Monday's screening was sponsored by the National Council for Adoption, the word "adoption" is uttered only once in the film. There are no tirades against abortion. Indeed, it acknowledges a woman's pain of carrying a baby to term only to give it up for adoption. In the end, however, the film is a heart-wrenching affirmation of life over death.
"Bella" was conceived by three young Mexican men -- producer, director and lead actor -- who are conservative Catholics and want to make movies removed from Hollywood's movie culture of sex and violence. Bankrolled by a wealthy Catholic family from Philadelphia, they shot the film in 24 days in New York City.
The star is Eduardo Verastegui, a Mexican heartthrob as a lead performer in TV soap operas who now lives in Los Angeles. A devout Catholic, he told me he was tired of movies showing Latinos as disreputable and immoral. He has learned to speak English in three years well enough to play the lead role mostly in English (with subtitles over the Spanish).
It was a stretch to get "Bella" even shown at Toronto, much less win an award. "Going into the festival," said the Hollywood Reporter, "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."
Even with the Toronto prize, which in the past has led to Academy and Golden Globe awards, however, it is hard to get the film in movie houses, and it may be necessary for the filmmakers to form a distribution company. The avowed reason for the difficulty is inexperience of the director and a cast with names unfamiliar to American moviegoers. But the film's producers say the same left-wing Hollywood establishment that attacked "The Passion of The Christ" is sniping at "Bella," which lacks a Mel Gibson in support.
If the Crucifixion in "The Passion" was hard to take for non-Christians and some Christians, "Bella" on one level is a drama without religious overtones. But while the audience at Monday's screening was moved to tears, reaction from a commercial theater audience -- including women who have chosen an abortion -- could be different. The pro-life movement hopes, in the absence of effort by supposedly pro-life politicians, it will point to a different way to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.