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Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Bell---eh...
So slight that a gentle breeze might tip it over, "Bella" is a film about selfless love that wants to be loved too much. Manipulative pic trades in fairy-tale views of New York life alongside briefly sustained emotional confessions, which may partly explain its victory as Toronto fest's aud winner. Mexican-born helmer Alejandro Monteverde's debut will be remembered as a curious case of a mediocre film that wows crowds... Daily Variety


I have been getting loads of email asking (and sometimes demanding!) my opinion of the indie project Bella that opens (frantically) this weekend in several cities. I have thus refrained from making an official comment about the project because it seemed to me there was no upside. There has been an aggressive and, frankly, stupefying marketing blitz in the Catholic, pro-life universe for the film, and the folks behind the film have recruited an impressive number of good-willed, Catholic and pro-life notables to give the film a thumbs-up. I can't figure out where the momentum is coming from - as the film itself is not that good - except that everybody in Christendom is eager to support something in the culture instead of always saying "Bleck." (Which Christians really wouldn't have to always be saying if we paid attention better to the good work that is out there to be seen...but that's another post.)

So, we have ourselves a real-live, mind-numbing bandwagon going here to get behind Bella if you love Jesus and care about the babies! I have been contacted three separate times in the last two months trying to get me to say something in support of the film, and my response was, "Why do you need me? You have nearly the entire orthodox Catholic world telling you it's the greatest Catholic, pro-life film ever made?" A producer on the film subsequently left a message on my voicemail noting that my refusal to support the film had its source "in the demonic." Really? "Demonic"? It couldn't just be that I found the film plodding, easy, sloppy and uneven?

In short, I don't think Bella is great. It's not really "Catholic" (in the sense of overt spirituality). And it really isn't pro-life (in the usual sense of that term). Is it the worst film ever made? No. I'm not saying that at all. It is a first-time project from some filmmakers with clear potential, that has some nice moments and certainly loads of good intentions behind it. But is it great cinematic story-telling, or even really good cinematic storytelling deserving of all the raves it is getting? No.

When you know, practically from the beginning, what's going to happen at the end of a movie, what do you do with your time in between? Offer to buy everyone in the theater popcorn while you sit this thing out? Check cellphone messages? Catch up on lost sleep? We opted to just watch "Bella," a Mexican movie in which the outcome is never in doubt, the scenes are endless -- sorry, we meant poetic-- and the false beard on the central character's face looks as though it could use a little extra gum. One conversation segues into what seems to be eternal walking and talking....Anybody need any help with where this is going?.... But as the film amiably observes the passage of time, we can only think about the clock. - Washington Post


What is going on is a wildly over the top marketing blitz in which the investors in Bella are trying desperately to recoup their investment, by telling good Catholic people that they must support this film to send a message to Hollywood. As with so many other mediocre Christian movies, the only "message" that Hollywood will get if Bella does well, is that the Christian audience has no idea what a good movie is and will rave about anything that remotely mirrors our world-view. And the really sad thing is, that message isn't true. Most Christian people, like the rest of the world, do know a good story when they see one. So many, possibly most of the folks who are going to dutifully show up to support Bella this weekend are going to be disappointed or annoyed, or generally confused at what it is they are missing that everybody else is raving about. Trust your gut, audience of The Passion, you're not missing something. There's just not much in Bella to miss.

...It's as if director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde felt the episodic and wandering tale had gone on long enough and now needed to round the film off with a neat ending. He wanted to avoid the most obvious, but did not come up with the surprising or the satisfying, but rather the second-most-obvious choice. Movie logic replaces character logic, and we feel cheated....It ends like a TV show, and everyone has learned a neat little lesson. Phooey. - Arizona Republic


Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I haven't seen the film in over a year since it was in rough cut. In the weeks before the project was shot, I had read the "screenplay" (and I use the term loosely, because it was astoundingly unprofessional, but I understand from one of the producers that "80% of the script was thrown out on set as the actors improvv-ed the scenes...."Oh great," I thought. "That will fix things just fine.") My notes on the project were, "This screenplay is deficient in every area in which it can be." I noted that there was no real story, and that the character's choices were unmotivated. There was no conflict, no theme, no imagery, no subtext and no rationale to the structure. And the dialogue was very bad. And there was a lot of stylistic showing-off that had nothing to do with the main story. And the only two choices that make up the entire A-story, HAPPEN OFF SCREEN! All in all, a very bad script.

Bella, which surprisingly took the top audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006, is yet another dull American independent movie, one that eschews the empty flash of the Hollywood model but doesn’t substitute anything interesting of its own. It’s content to plod along as it plays out its rather hackneyed skein... None of this is done with any real style or panache... Bella is as pedestrian as they come. - Boxoffice Magazine


When I saw the film in rough-cut, it was ostensibly to help the filmmakers decide on a name for the movie. I remember saying to them, "I don't know what to call it, it isn't really about anything." (In response, one of the producers on the film suggested to my manager that I have "deep spiritual problems". I'm just saying...) I noted at that point that the performances were uneven, the structure was deeply flawed, the costuming and make-up were bad, and that the production design was, well, non-existent.

Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde has so little control of tone or nuance that even the most tragic and serious moments here come off as melodramatic jokes. (During the screening I attended, nearly the entire theater burst out laughing at the violent death of a child.)...(Bella) manages to be utterly predictable without making any sense at all.....The Village Voice


Okay, a year later, people are telling me that the movie is "the greatest Catholic pro-life movie ever!" Every Catholic media outlet is covering the project like it is Gone With the Wind for the Church. I am hearing stories of people breaking into tears and renouncing lives of sin because of the movie. Everyone mentions the "amazing story" of the filmmakers who converted to Christ and then knowing nothing about movie making, won an award at Toronto. (And I should note, I really like the lead actor here, Eduardo. He's a lovely, prayerful, completely sincere guy.)

Though the Toronto Film Festival doesn't have an official competition section, its People's Choice Award winners have been a reliable bellwether for movies that will enjoy some degree of popular acclaim: Tsotsi, Hotel Rwanda, Whale Rider, Amélie, Life Is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Given that history, a full-scale investigation needs to be launched over how Bella managed to take the award in 2006...this gooey, cheap-looking Mexican tele-novella...The emotions at play in "Bella" are no doubt heartfelt—and must have resonated with a few hundred people, anyway—but they're so cut-and-dried that the mawkish script virtually writes itself. - AV Club.


Monteverde's movie is full of long, melodramatic monologues, meagerly developed motivations and TV-movie staging. The choppy narrative makes the story unnecessarily confusing and largely uninteresting. The good news for Monteverde is that he must have a lot of family and friends in his corner. How else to explain the fact that "Bella" won an audience award at last year's Toronto Film Festival? - Los Angeles Daily News


I don't know what they were smoking at Toronto, but I suspect that the film was well-received there because of its occasionally charming images of a Latino family, but mainly because of the fact that Bella, regardless of what is being said about it, is ambiguous on the subject of abortion. One review I read praised the film for being a look at a problem pregnancy "in which the woman is supported in the choice that is right for her." Feministblog.com (which has mysteriously disappeared this week...) was scratching their heads as to why pro-lifers were supporting Bella. One of the writers there wrote, "Just because a woman has a baby, doesn't make a movie anti-choice!"

But please, can we just take all the hype out for a second and be down-to-earth, gut-wrenchingly, "Emperor may not have any clothes on," honest? Do you really think, under any conceivable scenario, that a movie that compellingly articulates the Culture of Life, would get under the radar of the lefty crowd at the Toronto Film Festival? In this day and age in which the issue of abortion is THE SUBTEXT TO JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING?! "A house divided against itself cannot stand. If NARAL celebrates a 'great Catholic pro-life movie' than how can NARAL's kingdom stand?" Try and put the situation in reverse. Could you ever see us pro-lifers being heart-warmed and won over by a subtly pro-choice film, you know, and kind of not see that it is undermining our world-view? And aren't pro-choice people minimally as smart as we are? You're damn right they are. So, regardless of what is being said, this movie is not strongly pro-life. It doesn't represent common-ground. It just takes a very complex, divisive social issue and handles it, well, sloppily enough that neither side in the argument knows exactly what case is being made. I don't even think it is pro-adoption as some have claimed. If it was, then the bookend at the beginning would have Jose looking somewhat healed after five years with the child. As it is, he looks like a pedophile who hasn't moved an inch from the last time we saw him. If it is supposed to be "pro-adoption," it's just sadly sloppy.

While I don't want to question the reliability or taste of Toronto Film Festival audiences, this super low-budget movie doesn't seem to have very much plot or purpose; the writing and storytelling just aren't there. Monteverde tries too hard to squoosh too many ideas into a short amount of time, and there's little reason why you might be interested in spending a day roaming around New York with these two people...but what really kills the movie is when it jumps forward an indeterminate number of years and the two main characters look exactly the same, showing exactly how lazy and sloppy this filmmaker really is. Rating: 5/10.... from Weekend Warrior


"Phooey." "Lazy and sloppy." "Cheap." "Utterly predictable." "Pedestrian." "Melodramatic." "Mawkish." "Gooey." These are the words secular critics are using to describe this movie that Catholics everywhere are raving about as "grrrrrrreat!" These are not words one generally sees applied to great art, even when one disagrees with its agenda. We can't both be right. Someone is blind here, or else not telling the truth.

I want to know, what the hell is going on here that the damned pagans can see exactly what this project is as a work of art, but the Christians can't? Or if we are not blind, God forbid, we don't care! What the hell is going on?

Clearly, the pagans take art much more seriously than we Christians do. And that is not something we get to be all bullish about.

The "Cream of the Crop" percentage for Bella over at Rotten Tomatoes is a "25%" Which is about right. And no, I don't think the industry critics are panning the project because of its Christian worldview, although I know that many Christians will make that case. If only they were panning this film as propaganda. But they're not. They are panning it as bad art. Bad storytelling...and that should really matter to us Christians who are raving about this project, shouldn't it? Should we Christians be throwing ourselves on the ground in front of a movie just because the filmmakers are Christians? Should we rally around a project that is ambiguous about the "right to choose," simply because the filmmakers meant to make a pro-life film? Does wanting to make a great Catholic pro-life film equate with actually making one?

How do we respond to the serious charges against this piece from the secular critics? Should we just ignore what they say as the threatened snarling of jaded, hedonistic, pagans? I'm hearing people tell me that, anyway, movies are all just a matter of taste. "Movies are like food." Oh, so now, we Christians are going to be the ones making that case that there is no such thing as the beautiful and that beauty is all in the eye of the beholder? Be careful with that. I promise you, you're not going to like where it goes.

(In Bella) it's necessary to endure a cruel barrage of sappy butterfly imagery, dubious evocations of "New York moments," and one laughable spectacle of cultural immersion... Until the especially maudlin final reel... After the prodigal son returns to his parents' home, the whole family subjects Nina to violent fluctuations between adoration and admonishment. "Joy" is what Nina calls their borderline minstrelsy, when really it's closer to the latest episode of Ugly Betty....SLANT magazine


Will Bella hurt the world? Probably not. The only damage it might do is to affirm some people in thinking the world would be a better place if we all just "supported women in the choice that is right for them." Will Bella do good in the world? It seems like it is inspiring lots of folks, so that's good. (It's what I like to call "Precious Moments good" You know, the stuff soul-searing, self-abnegating heroes generally feed on.... Uh-huh.)

Someone asked me if Bella was okay for kids. My take is, "No." First of all, they'll be bored out of their gourds. But second of all, and critically, there is still time to raise them to love good stories well told. Please, be better to your kids than you are to yourselves!

Seriously, I don't recommend or not recommend this film. Truly this is the kind of film for which the phrase, "It is what it is," was invented.

...with "Bella," the melodrama and cheap theatrics of the story's off-center segments drag the whole thing down. In his feature directorial debut, Alejandro Monteverde hits the mark as often as he misses it, but the film's problems linger longer than its successes. - Chicago Tribune