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Having recently returned from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival, I can assure you that there is plenty of interest in the art of filmmaking within the evangelical community. This is a good thing and very much-needed if Christians hope to have any input and influence in the pagan-saturated media-marketplace of ideas. Although many Christians are waking up to the void of salt and light in the entertainment industry, most are approaching the solution from the wrong end of the camera. It is a well-established fact that bad or poor acting will kill even the most technically perfect film, and more often than not, most so-called Christian films fall into this category. Good intentions may get sympathy, but they won’t bring in viewers. Aspiring Christian filmmakers need to sit up and take notice of Bella, an adamantly pro-life film made by an adamantly Roman Catholic production company.
Because ritual and tradition play such a huge role in their worship experience, Catholics tend to recognize that it is not only what a person is saying, but how they are saying it. Since the overwhelming majority of Protestants have long since removed any form of liturgy from their worship services by declaring it a Roman Catholic abomination, they have been relegated to making films that closely resemble their word-centered worship services, complete with altar calls and organ music.
Film excels at metaphor—forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn’t fare as well with text messaging. Show, don’t tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can’t seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
Bella provides a perfect counter-example to this Protestant short-sightedness. Although it is a film that is primarily about abortion and the sanctity of life, first-time director Alejandro Monteverde never once uses the word “abortion,” or even “murder.” And even though it is intent on focusing the viewer’s attention on God as the Giver and Creator of life, “God” or “Lord” are likewise rarely mentioned. There is however, one brief scene where a blind street artist asks the female protagonist, Nina, to describe the beautiful day to him in exchange for one of his origami sculptures. As she walks away cradling her paper prize, we catch a glimpse of the man’s sign on the sidewalk in front of him: “The Lord closed my eyes and now I can see.” The scene is powerful in its subtleness. The words on the sign aren’t read out loud or spoken by either of the lead characters and the sign itself is on the screen for a quick second or two before it’s gone. It is a brilliant usage of word and image that the director allows to speak for itself, and the impact of the scene lingers long after it is over. Without feeling the need to bludgeon the viewer or belabor the point, Monteverde quietly shows us the Creator of life by introducing us to the creator of paper artwork. And just as God had to take away this man’s eyes to show him real sight, so Nina is about to embark on a journey of discovery of her own.
Since I believe Bella is best seen with as little knowledge of its basic story as possible, I will refrain from summarizing the film’s plot with much detail. Suffice it to say that it is about a young man who was on top of the world with the tiger by the tail when everything came to a screeching halt. José’s (Eduardo Verástegui) perfect life as a high-paid soccer pro ends in an instant and he hides himself from the world in his brother’s Mexican restaurant disguised in a thick black beard and a chef’s smock. When Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a struggling waitress in the restaurant, is fired for being late for the fourth time, José leaves the kitchen and follows her to the subway station. A long day of walking and talking ensues as José and Nina come to realize that each of them holds the key to the other’s dark and difficult past. Although José’s itinerary of activities throughout the course of the day are a bit hard to swallow as being purely extemporaneous, they are, nonetheless, exactly what Nina needs to see and hear. Instead of sermonizing, he is simply there for her, willing to jeopardize his own livelihood for the sake of her well-being. José is sympathetic enough to realize that Nina doesn’t need words, she needs company and someone she can trust. As Christians we need to learn this lesson too. Oftentimes we need to shut our mouths and show how much we care instead of constantly telling people of our concern.