The name Bella means beautiful. And it’s a word that does not in any way apply to Jose or his life when we first meet him. Scruffy and forlorn, Jose hasn’t been the same since a tragic accident ended his promising soccer career. Now he’s the head chef at his brother’s fancy restaurant.
People worry about Jose.
Working at that same restaurant is a young, unmarried woman named Nina who does not want to be pregnant. But she is. And her morning sickness and late arrivals get her fired.
No one worries about Nina—except Jose.
Jose is drawn to the troubled woman and offers his help. She’s suspicious of his intentions at first, but her situation and his quiet persistence motivate her to accept the proffered friendship. Still, she brushes off his gentle encouragement to let her baby live. Nina has come to the conclusion that if her life is ever going to be normal again she must abort her little girl.
This artistically low-key yet emotionally complex and compelling story focuses on two friends—one damaged by the past and the other afraid of the future—who help each other make a pair of life-changing choices.
Beyond friendship and caring for others, abortion and adoption are the two big themes in Bella. Both options are on the table, as it were, when the film opens. When it concludes, the former has been flattened, the latter lifted up.
[Spoiler Warning] Jose doesn’t make demands of Nina, but quietly listens as they walk around New York City, and she gives voice to her anger and panic. When actor Eduardo Verástegui, who plays Jose, recently spoke with Focus on the Family, he put it this way:
“My Jose never tells her what to do except for one question that he asks. … The rest he just leaves to her and loves her. He opens his own wound to her so she can see how wounded he is. He opens the doors of his house to her so she can see what family is. And then he adopts the baby. But first he shows love, because love and truth conquer everything. … He elevates her first and makes her feel important—and by doing that he makes it easy for her to make the right choice.”
When Jose and Nina get into their very first conversation about her pregnancy, he assumes she will keep the child. She quickly corrects him, listing all the reasons why a young woman like herself couldn’t raise a child. “I can’t have this baby and have it suffer with me,” she says. She dismisses the idea of adoption as being worse than abortion—except to sneeringly offer the baby to Jose. All of this sets up and strengthens the impact of her change of heart. And images of her at an abortion clinic, sobbing, seal the emotional side of the moral “deal” Bella presents.
Jose arranges a new job for Nina with a friend. And when he takes her to his family’s home, they welcome her warmly. Over dinner, family members openly share their joys and problems.
A tender mother-son moment happens when Jose and his mom have a private talk during which she expresses her concern for him. As she reaches out for him, he breaks down and sobs in her arms. Meanwhile, Jose’s father, who speaks very little English, “talks” alone with Nina, who speaks very little Spanish, and in doing so symbolically pushes aside racial tensions.
Nina is touched by the acceptance and love she sees in Jose’s family. And she later tells Jose that he is “seriously lucky” to have such a good family.
At one point during their day together, Jose and Nina stop to talk to a blind man. Nina takes the time to be his eyes by describing the street scene around them. The blind man joyfully receives her verbal picture.
Other restaurant employees speak positively of Jose for his consistent compassion toward the people around him. He messes up when he walks out on his brother during the restaurant’s peak hours, but the movie uses his impulsive action (he wants to help Nina) to show us how differences can ultimately be resolved if both sides try. (He and his brother eventually share a hug of resolution.)
Jose and his father plant small trees together in a gesture of renewal. Dad says, “Gardening. It’s food for the soul.”
Although there are very few direct mentions of God in the film, we’re given the strong impression that Nina is wrestling with not just a physical and emotional decision, but also a spiritual one. At one point in their discussions about the baby, Nina asks Jose, “Do you think this is all there is?” In flash-forward vignettes, he’s seen sitting in an abortion clinic waiting area, praying with rosary beads.
Jose says, “My grandmother used to say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.'” The blind man’s sign reads, “God closed my eyes. Now I can see.” And at the family dinner, Jose’s younger brother gives the blessing for the meal in Spanish. His words translate to, “May the One that gave us our lives, bless this food.”
[Spoiler Warning] Jose’s “wound” relates to an automobile accident that claimed the life of a very young girl. He was driving the car. And when he describes what happened to Nina, he speaks of the child’s mother: “I can still hear her crying for God to give her daughter back.”
There are no sexual scenes depicted. Nina, however, is pregnant by a man who is not her husband. Jose asks if she loves the man. She responds that she does not.
Nina is shown taking a bath, but only her head pokes out above the bubbles.
[Spoiler Warning] In flashback we see the accident that torments Jose. He recklessly hits and kills a 4-year-old girl with his car. We don’t see the impact, but the unfolding hide-and-seek lead-in scene—that we know will cause her death—is so tense that the whole sequence feels quite violent. The bloodied girl is very briefly seen on the pavement and in her mother’s arms.
Nina bangs her head against a mirror in frustration over being pregnant. Tormented by his past, Jose intentionally burns his hand over a flame in the kitchen. Angry at Jose, his brother hits a wall.
“Gosh” is the strongest word said. At one point, Nina speaks of Jose’s restaurant-running brother and says, “He is such a piece of …” but she doesn’t finish the thought. A man insults a convenience store clerk by calling him “Korea.” One Spanish word could be translated as a crudity in certain parts of the world.
A younger Jose smokes a celebratory cigar and people are seen smoking on the street. At a family dinner, wine is poured and consumed. As a toast, family members each drink a small glass of tequila. Nina twice drinks alcohol and once she smokes a cigarette—after she knows she’s pregnant. And she tells a story of getting “stoned” as a teen.
“Bella is a moving and inspirational movie,” Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson told Plugged In Online. “In a day of Hollywood’s excesses, profanities and foolishness, this sensitive film speaks eloquently of life, love and beauty. I enjoyed it very much.”
Indeed, Bella is an unusually intelligent, humane film that reminds us how easy it is to impact one person’s life—and perhaps save another’s—simply by being sensitive to hurting people and carving out time to care. It is a tender tale of grace, faith, redemption and the sanctity of life. It doesn’t showcase A-list stars or wield a multi-gazillion dollar budget. Rather, it’s an intimate narrative that will surely fly well beneath the Hollywood blockbuster radar. But it’s a film that does fly directly in the face of Hollywood’s—and society’s—”it’s all about me” credo.
Eduardo Verástegui knows his little film (he also co-produced it) won’t dominate the box office. But he doesn’t mind. “I was caught up in the stardom and money of this business, like so many actors,” he told us, “But I was drawn to do this. To just do something worthwhile.” Thus, he and his fellow producers stepped away from successful careers to pursue an independent film with no guarantees. He said with emotion, “What I’d love to see happen with this film is to someday have this 12-year-old knock on my door and say that her mother was going to have an abortion. But she saw this film. That would be my Oscar.”
He continued, “This film is for the Ninas of the world. This film is not for the people who already agree that life is personal and has dignity. I want to touch the girls who come from broken families who don’t know anything about all these important issues—and next thing you know they find themselves pregnant and they think it’s fine to just go and have an abortion because that is what they have been taught. I want to reach them and embrace them and love them through the film and then by that they can choose what is best for them, which is to have their baby.”
Bella‘s pondering of love and true values may just be vivid enough to accomplish the things Verástegui hopes it will.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.