In Passion: Films, Faith, and Fury, a recent British documentary on the history of religion in film, a Christian filmmaker was interviewed on his involvement in the 1979 epic film Jesus. Also known as The Jesus Project, the film has been translated into hundreds of languages and show at gigantic screenings across the globe. The filmmaker described the project as being inspired by Christ’s own example of reaching the crowds through parables. Neither the documentary or the interviewee heeded the glaring paradox: Jesus isn’t a parable at all, but a literal retelling of Luke’s Gospel. This anecdote highlights an established trend in Christian filmmaking. Rarely do Christian filmmakers produce films which are actually parables, metaphors, or otherwise lacking in overt Christian values or agenda. The emphasis on explicit message over subtle metaphor has impoverished many Christian films; realism and moral complexity are often lost beneath the desire to provide a neat and painfully obvious Christian message. Rod Dreher summed it up best when it described the moral blandishments of the Left Behind series as “The Gospel according to Ned Flanders.”
Metanoia Films, a new production company, has bucked this trend in their debut film Bella, which is slated for release in select markets mid-August. Its artistry and depth makes it a powerful testament to the culture of life, though paradoxically it’s not clear whether it will be lauded by many pro-life Christian viewers. Starring Mexican soap opera star Eduardo Veràstegui, Bella traces a day in the life of Nina, a young waitress who contemplates having an abortion. Nina’s position is a compelling one and her suffering is real and intense. So convincingly has Metanoia rendered Nina’s existential crisis, that many of the less observant abortion advocates see it as movie that lies within the purview of their ideology, though uncomfortably so. Their short-sightedness can be forgiven—since when has a Christian movie’s message been transmitted without fuzzy treacle?
Bella derives its power from its depiction of God’s grace working subtly and mysteriously within Nina’s troubled heart. In one particular scene, a blind man asks Nina to describe what she can see; he forces her to concentrate on the beauty she doesn’t feel like perceiving. This scene sums up the whole action of the movie: the opening of Nina’s soul and heart to grace, love, and beauty. The primary instrument of grace is Eduardo Veràstegui’s character Jose, a character rarely seen in today’s cinema: a truly virtuous and self-sacrificing soul. He is present for Nina in her hour of need and creates the haven of love and mercy that opens her heart to the possibility of life. For those women who identify with Nina, it presents a similar opportunity for grace to penetrate their desperate and hardened hearts. At the Toronto Film Festival, whose prestigious People’s Choice Award Bella won, a woman was so moved by Bella she decided to keep her child and name her Bella.
Surprisingly, many Christian pro-life advocates are not receiving Bella with open arms. At a recent screening of Bella, the MC tried to rally the Christian crowd by asking everyone who supports Metanoia Film’s efforts to stand up: barely half the crowd rose from their seats. Secondly, I received an acerbic e-mail from an intelligent Catholic film critic which lambasted me for a passing comment on my blog which identified Bella as a pro-life movie. The critic’s main objection to Bella was its ambiguity. “The film,” the critic bristled, “never mentions the life of the unborn child which seems to me inexcusable for a film made by Catholics….. People who are pro-life see the film as being pro-life, because they are told going in that the film was made with pro-life intentions. But people who are pro-choice think it is an affirmation of a pro-choice worldview.” In other words, this critic would only be placated if the movie had had an explicit Christian message.
A truly pro-life movie then is one which resembles a logically incisive pamphlet; this approach might score some points in the perpetual political power struggle, but its doubtful that it would have any effect on the Ninas of the world. Bella is powerful because it resonates on an emotional and spiritual level, penetrating through the half-baked NARAL arguments inculcated in so many women. Ultimately, reality doesn’t reflect tidy messages, and God’s grace is a mysterious reality. This movie, by not following the trend of Christian films which double as propaganda, will affect the lives of women struggling with abortion.