The hotly debated question in politics right now is whether or not Republicans will nominate a pro-life candidate for president. But for those of us who bemoan the lack of healthy entertainment choices, there’s a more immediate question that will be decided not at the ballot box but the box office this coming weekend. That question is: Can a beautifully-crafted film with an equally beautiful life-affirming message make it on the big screen?
The movie at issue is “Bella.” It is a moving work of art that is full of heart. “The film shows there is a time in everyone’s life when a moment will change your life forever and it will never be the same again. If it hasn’t happened to you, it will,” explains Eduardo Verastegui, who plays the lead role of Jose in the film. “It’s a love story that goes beyond romance,” he continues “about a man who had everything. He lost it all but losing it all he found all that matters in life which is family, true love, true friendship and a lot of beautiful things that you will see while watching the film.”
Whether or not it is successful in general release will be decided—to a very significant degree—on opening weekend, beginning this Friday, October 26th. Only with strong opening numbers can the film gain access to the greater number of screens across the country so essential to box office success. And the decision will be made by moviegoers like you and like me. But if the past is an indicator of the future, “little ‘Bella’” as Eduardo affectionately refers to this first project by Metanoia Films, may well make it big.
The sense that something special was happening with this film started to come clear last year when their entry was accepted at the Toronto Film Festival. “The film wasn’t even finished and we sent it to the biggest film festival in the world and our hope was only to get in. We were thinking, could you imagine if we get in?—then we will have the little logo in our poster ‘Official Selection of the Toronto Film Festival,’ and that’s the only thing that we were looking for.”
Eduardo, along with Director Alejandro Monteverde and Producer Leo Severino, could not have been more surprised. Film Festival attendees packed the theatre and gave “Bella” the coveted People’s Choice Award. This puts the film in good company: “Chariots of Fire” (1984), “Life is Beautiful” (1998) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) were all similarly recognized with the People’s Choice Award—and all went on to win at the Oscars.
But how can we explain the success of what is such a genuinely life-affirming film? “The only explanation is God. It seems like God is bigger than Toronto…. I think the people really received the message and it touched them,” Eduardo says. “And I think when someone is moved and when somebody cries hard and laughs hard and when someone leaves the theatre moved and touched… That means a lot and I think that’s what ‘Bella’ did to the audience in Toronto.”
So, while Academy Award recognition would be nice, it’s not the primary motivator for Eduardo, Sevorino and Monteverde. These “three amigos” as they’ve been labeled know all too well that so much of what is coming out from Hollywood is “poison”—and they wanted to start a company whose films have an uncompromising positive message. For Eduardo, “Bella” marks a very abrupt change of course. He has been described in a number of outlets as the “Brad Pitt of Latin America.” Yet he became disillusioned and dissatisfied as his career led him down the path of the Latin lover. After a renewal of his Catholic faith, he now says, “I knew I was not born to be a movie star…. I was born to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ, and that’s my goal.”
Eduardo recognized that “young people live according to the standards that they see in the media. We have this tendency and this inclination to copy and to imitate what we see in the media—and it’s very sad because 90 percent of what is coming from the media is poisoning our society.”
Through “Bella” the three amigos have set out to do something different, something decidedly non-toxic. “We’re excited and we’re just so passionate about this film because for us it’s [not] just another film, it’s a mission about using the media and film to elevate the dignity of the human person. [I wanted to do a film] that I can invite my grandmother and mother to and I don’t have to cover their eyes in any scene.” Through their film company, Metanoia Films, their mission is to serve others; they want the audience to leave the theatre “with a candle in their heart … with hope.” Partnering with the three amigos behind “Bella” are financier Sean Wolfington and Executive Producer Steve McEveety from The Passion of the Christ.
Bella succeeds in its mission of lighting a candle of hope. It is full of laughter, full of tears, full of hope and full of life. The film is pro-life, yet in no way preachy—and certainly not political. In the film, Jose (Eduardo’s character) comes alongside a young waitress, Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who is facing an unexpected pregnancy. Prior to filming, in an effort to understand what the character Nina was going through, Eduardo made a visit to an abortion clinic. “I wanted to build my character and do some research and investigation.”
“I went there thinking that it was going to be something very simple and easy … stop the first lady and ask her a few questions, do my notes.” He was not expecting the emotional experience of what followed. “I was in shock when I saw all these 16- and 17-year-old girls going in and I didn’t know what to do. I forgot about the film and then I saw a few people outside trying to convince [a young girl] not to do it.
“I approached that group … introduced myself and I told them, ‘I am here to help,’ so they thought I was one of them. Next thing you know one of the young ladies from the group tells me: ‘Eduardo this couple, they don’t speak English, we don’t speak Spanish, can you talk to them?’ I said ‘yes.’”
He was quickly recognized from his work on soap operas in Mexico—the telenovelas—and they started a conversation that quickly became a friendship. “We ended up talking for 45 minutes about everything: life, food, Mexico, dreams—and I gave her a little teddy bear and a little stroller and I showed her a little video called ‘Dura Realidad’ in Spanish and it shows what abortion really is. She cried and she left and she cancelled the appointment.”
After they finished filling their cast, Eduardo and team moved on to New York for the shooting for the film. Then, “I came back to Los Angeles, and a few months later I received a call from the man who was with [the pregnant girl] that day and he tells me, ‘Eduardo, I have great news for you. My boy, my baby was born yesterday. I want to ask you permission because I want to call him Eduardo.’
“It changed my life…. I didn’t plan to do that. I was only doing my investigation as an actor. I never thought that, by the grace of God, I was going to be used as an instrument to save this baby to be Eduardito…. It was just amazing, to the point that I thought: Even if ‘Bella’ never comes out and nobody sees it I rejoice in the Lord for Eduardito’s life.”
This weekend, little “Bella” does come out. It is opening in 29 cities and the potential of many more in weeks to come. Eduardo and his friends at Metanoia films have dreams that their film can change the world. In a profound way, it already has.