Friday, December 28, 2007

A No-Trojan Horse

BELLA, the debut film of Mexican-born director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, is an unusual entry on the movie landscape. A small drama about a day in the life of a Latino chef and a troubled young woman in New York City, the movie was the surprise winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

It might have been more appropriate to give it the “People’s Anti–Choice Award,” because Bella’s avowed purpose is as an anti-abortion polemic. The release of the movie, made by a trio of devout Catholic men, stirred excited anticipation among religious groups opposing abortion. Conservative columnist Robert Novak — best known these days for revealing the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame — wrote recently that Bella is a welcome aid to the cause of ending legal abortion:

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 antiabortion. Pro-life forces in the House suffered a net loss of about 13 members. That means statutory restrictions on abortion…are in serious jeopardy.”

Praising the film effusively, Novak writes, “It is no propaganda film, but a dramatic depiction of choices facing an unmarried pregnant woman.” What seems to elude Novak is that propaganda is, by definition, meant to influence opinion by appealing to the emotions. And Bella is designed to bring a tear to the eye.

The story is about José (Eduardo Verástegui), a former soccer star who now works as a chef at a restaurant owned by his brother Manny (Manny Perez). When the dictatorial Manny fires Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a waitress who shows up late after learning that she’s pregnant, José runs after her.

Leaving the beleaguered Manny to handle the lunch rush, José spends the day with Nina, discussing her plight and bringing her to his parents’ house for dinner. Nina tells José she plans to have an abortion. José urges her to consider adoption. José’s mamá (Angélica Aragón) joins the effort by revealing that her oldest child, Manny, was adopted, but is loved just as much as her other sons. Nina is surrounded by pro-life propagandists!

The religious themes are subtle but unmistakable. Through flashbacks, the movie reveals the secret sorrow of José’s life: a tragic accident, at the height of his soccer career, that caused a child’s death. This gives José a special motive for preventing Nina’s abortion. Nina’s unborn child becomes, in a sense, the resurrection of the dead child.

Typically, movies about unplanned pregnancy — The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Love With the Proper Stranger and the recent Knocked Up — end in marriage. But Bella is not a romance, and its message is disturbingly patriarchal. José decides what’s best for Nina, and the final scene suggests just how irrelevant she is in this equation. (Spoiler alert: if you plan to see the movie — though I can't imagine why you would — stop reading now.) We see José playing with the little girl, and Nina arriving for a tearful meeting with her— evidently for the first time. The child has been saved, and her mother, it seems, has gone off somewhere — banished, perhaps, for the crime of having even contemplated an abortion.

“In the end,” Novak gushes, “the film is a heart-wrenching affirmation of life over death.” Or maybe it’s just an appalling denial of the rights of women to make their own decisions.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

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