Even after the Rep. Todd Akins debacle, I wasn’t too embarrassed to call myself a pro-lifer. A safe pro-lifer; “I don’t believe in abortion except if it’ll harm the mother.” Okay, that may not be accurate. What about rape, illegitimate or not legitimate? How trustworthy were adoptions and foster care? And what about mothers who, if they did have the child, would make Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver?
Last Sunday, Choose Life at Yale, a pro-life undergraduate organization, held a screening of “Bella,” a film that follows a young pregnant woman’s blooming friendship with a brooding young man. The freshmen and their lanyards didn’t pour in as I thought they would. Oh well. Perhaps the digital images would solidify my pro-life stance, I thought. Or not.
The CLAY members stayed close together in that seminar room, chatting enthusiastically about the new school year and the new “converts” it would bring. It’s a shame that the safety buttons, kettle popcorn and polite conversation had to bookend “Bella.” The food and talk were more convincing recruitment tools than the film.
The film opens with a brooding Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) surveying a little girl playing on a beach. His heavy beard announces that he is a man with a dark secret. A single accident has halted his soccer career. Now he works as a chef at his brother Manny’s (Manny Perez) restaurant. Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a nervous waitress at the same restaurant, has an unplanned pregnancy and no support network. The film explores a single day in both of their lives as their paths intersect.
In a little over 24 hours, Manny fires Nina after her morning sickness makes her late one too many times, Jose gets himself fired by chasing after her for an unexplained reason, they ride around, they’re accepted into another job but don’t work there, Nina breaks down in an abortion clinic, they visit Jose’s family, Jose confesses his past tragedy, and Nina decides that she should give her unborn child to Jose. Mellow guitars and wispy vocals accompany this drama. Happily ever after, ignore the mess. With such an over-stuffing of events for two main characters who barely know each other, the film should move quickly.
But Jose and Nina are the protagonists.
Jose’s tragic beard and reckless kindness complement Nina’s lonely dilemma and ultimate transformation only to relay the thin message and nothing more. The supporting cast comforts, yells or jokes when required.
The characters talk, but the camera wants to watch people frowning on a train, or cement trucks churning, or skyscrapers rising. Director Alejandro Monteverde isn’t discovering anything new about New York City here. But when he and writers Patrick Million and Leo Severino capture snippets from Hispanic life in the City, the film obtains an additional dimension — only to flatten it. Manny takes advantage of undocumented Hispanic immigrants. Jose, a man from a close-knit Mexican family who still knows the language, doesn’t want Nina, who is far removed from her roots, to get an abortion. So, would a closer cultural connection curtail the high abortion rate among Hispanic women? I don’t know if the film has dived that deeply.
The film did elicit good discussion from CLAY. One freshman relayed her own account of her experience as an adopted child. With a tale involving real parents taking financial advantage of good, adoptive parents, it was clear that “Bella” had simplified a tricky matter. Movies are streamlined and stylized versions of our lives, but they don’t have to turn into fairy tales.
As I watched the film and talked to members of CLAY, I couldn’t help but wonder: where did God go in a discussion that — like some other issues in America (the death penalty, gay and lesbian rights, gender equality, etc.) — has some footing in religion? CLAY is irreligious in order to avoid internal conflict and, as CLAY president Travis Heine ‘14 said, to better “spread pro-life ideologies to convert others.” The organization provides emotional support to pregnant women and maintains a network with a variety of pregnancy centers (such as Sisters of Life) while being sure, as Heine clarified, “to avoid the moral high ground.”
Kelly Schumann ‘15, a member of CLAY, placed “Bella” within the tradition of its genre like this: “Some of these message films are hokey. But this one was nice.” Yes, nice. As if to say, something bland yet inoffensive.