There’s a tendency to hold anything and everything coming out of Hollywood to the lowest moral standards. As religious people, the Hollywood desert of secularism and godlessness can be so dry that we’re lap up anything. Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond is a good example. She’s great on a whole slew of life issues: she’s pro-life, anti-death penalty, and anti-euthanasia. But she’s not perfect: she’s for gay rights and birth control. I really don’t mean to knock on Ms. Heaton – she’s surely hurt her career by being so pro-life, and she’s a great person to have involved in Feminists for Life due in part to her recognizability from her acting. But I think if she were almost any other pro-lifer who was raised devout Catholic and now thought gay rights and birth contol were ok, we wouldn’t be as thrilled with her outspokenness. There’s certainly something of a double standard for famous types, particularly actors/actresses.
We do this in other areas, trying to derive a Christian message from movies which are often morally ambiguous, at best. I respect Mark Shea’s Catholic reading of The Truman Show, but I’m not sure that’s what anyone involved in the making of that flick intended.
I mention all of this so that when I say that Bella is a fantastic pro-life movie, I don’t just mean “it’s got a good message by Hollywood standards.” I mean that it’s a movie you can stand behind 100%. There’s no language, no sex, nothing I need to caveat, other than that there’s a lot of really emotionally riveting stuff, and a few pretty sad scenes. So keep the tissues handy, I guess. The film is subtle and compelling, not bang-you-over-the-head preachy: even pro-choicers should be able to appreciate the film’s message of the joy of birth, the struggle of women facing abortion, and the tragedy that is abortion — regardless of their feelings on whether that tragedy should be facilitated as some sort of “necessary evil” or not.
I don’t want to give away too many of the details, but basically, the story revolves around Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a young woman who gets fired the same day she finds out she’s pregnant, and José (Eduardo Verastegui), a [former] co-worker, and the brother of the guy who fired her. Nina’s pretty sure she wants to have an abortion, and José, who clearly doesn’t agree with this decision, seems to be torn on how to even approach the topic.
Bella happens to be a really captivating movie in its own right. Regardless of the topic, the cast of this movie was virtually perfect: it’s a great slice-of-life of the Latin parts of New York City, without hamming it up or going overboard. Even Nina’s boss, who fires her, is presented in a sympathetic light. This movie won the prestigious Toronto Film Festival (previous winners include other great movies like Hotel Rwanda and Life is Beautiful), and was one of the top ten grossing independent films of 2007. IMDB rates it a 7.4/10, with the biggest criticism that not enough happens; I don’t find it particularly slow, but it’s definitely a character-driven drama, not an action-packed flick. In any case, 7.4’s not a half bad, given that it’s the average given by users.
II. Behind Bella
After the film, I sort of took it all in while half-watching the credits. I was surprised to see some names I recognized on the list of people they were thanking, like Scott and Kimberly Hahn (Scott has called Bella “a window into Grace”). Anyways, since the people behind this film were obviously aware of its pro-life and Catholic-affirming message, I decided to see what the actors involved were like. After all, Jim Caviezel, star of The Passion of the Christ is a daily Mass-goer who describes himself as “shamelessly Catholic” (which would be a good name for a blog), and says things like: “You, my friends, by God, you must fight with Mary and with Christ as your sword. May you fight with St. Michael and all the angels in defending God, in sending Lucifer and his army straight back to hell where they belong!”
It turns out that the star of Bella is just as awesome. Known as “Mexico’s Brad Pitt,” this former Calvin Klein model and Latin pop star has turned his life over to Christ:
Today, the 35-year-old actor is a daily Mass-goer, committed to abstaining from sex before marriage, who flies to Darfur to help the starving, provides financial help for women considering abortions and organises house-building missions in Mexico.
“I wasn’t born to be famous, or to be a movie star, but to love and serve Jesus Christ,” the former model and singer once listed as among the top 50 “hottest” Hispanics by People magazine will tell a gathering of young Catholics on his first visit to England this weekend.
It was Verastegui’s English language coach for the movie Chasing Papi who lead to his reversion to Catholicism.
“She used a Socratic method, just asking me questions: why had I wanted to become an actor in the first place? What did I think the true meaning of life? Was I really making the best use of my God-given talents.” Initially, Verastegui resisted. The crunch moment came when the coach asked if he believed his body “was a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
“I replied “yes” he recalls, and she said “then why are you living in a way that breaks the Commandments and offends God? For the first time I saw how my lifestyle had insulted the Lord,” says the actor, who next sought out a Mexican priest and poured out, in a three-hour confession, past sins.
Filled with a “a sense of gratitude” at “the immense mercy of God” in forgiving his sins, Verastegui told his confessor he would give up Hollywood for life as a missionary in the Amazon jungles of Brazil.
“But my confessor said “Hollywood is your jungle, we already have people working in Brazil. So what had been my dream became a sacrifice,” Verastegui explains. For four years, he renounced all roles that conflicted with his Catholic and his Latino values, eventually co-founding with two associates Metanoia films.
Bella was Metanoia’s debut film (the word means “conversion” or “repentance”), and not a bad way to kick things off at all. Verastegui credits Pope John Paul II’s prayerful intercession for the film coming together:
“It was a beautiful experience,” Verástegui says. “I asked him to please pray for us and for Metanoia Films, so we can do movies that will bring people closer to Christ and elevate the dignity of Latinos. And just ten days later, we met Sean Wolfington [the entrepreneur who would finance the film’s $3 million budget]”
III. Beyond Bella
Bella is only the beginning of Verástegui’s unique apostolate. This year, he released a short film, The Butterfly Circus, which explores the problem of pain (and particularly, physical disability) in a particularly touching way. Verástegui stars alongside Australian actor Nick Vujicic. Vujicic has his own incredible conversion story. Born with no arms or legs, he struggled with depression before turning his life over to Christ. Today (at only age 26), he’s a preacher, and the founder of Life Without Limbs, which is worth checking out. His featured video is on the dual problems of AIDS and the rape of virgins in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, shot while he was on a mission trip there.
Like Vujicic, Verástegui stays active outside of the world of film. Besides the activities mentioned above (he “flies to Darfur to help the starving, provides financial help for women considering abortions and organises house-building missions in Mexico”), he’s also narrarated a 3-minute pro-life video on Obama, on the impact of abortion on Latinos. He also made an ad called “Just One Judge,” hammering home the terrible importance of the 2008 presidential election. In the latter, he speaks in front of a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of our best hopes for an end to abortion (after all, as a teenage single Mother, she said yes to life, and Life).
So rent (or buy) Bella, check out The Butterfly Circus, and find out more about these powerful voices for God – Jim Caviezel, Nick Vujicic, and especially Eduardo Verástegui.