Once in a rare while, a movie comes around that catches you by surprise in both its quality and content—a film that adds to your life, making you richer for having seen it. To me, movies like "Life is Beautiful" and "It's a Wonderful Life" are among the few worthy to grace this category.
Now I've added another film to this group: "Bella."
The winner of the prestigious Toronto Film Festival's People's Choice Award will introduces moviegoers to its message of hope and redemption. Even the fact that it's opening in the largest U.S. markets is an unexpected outcome for this independent film created by a handful of relatively newcomers who were out to share a message as much as they were to make a movie.
As for the film itself, the moviemaking quality is excellent. The acting is outstanding, the script very tightly written, and the story quite compelling.
The plot of "Bella" is quite simple. Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), the reclusive head chef working at his family's Mexican restaurant, sees fellow employee Nina (Tammy Blanchard) fired from her waitress job for repeated tardiness. Recognizing her desperation and sensing that he might be able to help her through a very difficult situation in her life (she also just found out she is pregnant), Jose goes AWOL from work to spend the day with Nina. As he helps her work through her problems and introduces her to his family, Jose is able to admit dark secrets from his own enigmatic past, bringing life and redemption to both of them.
To reveal much more of the plotline would rob the moviegoer of a wonderful sense of discovery that's built into the telling of the story. The most helpful thing we can do is encourage you to watch the movie trailer from the Bella website.
But equal to the on-screen story of Bella is the story of how the movie has made its way into the limelight. It involves three unlikely friends who shared a vision of bringing redemption to an often-superficial film industry by telling compelling stories that change hearts and lives. In fact, their film company is called Metanoia, a Greek word for repentance or a change of mind.
A heart for storytelling
Director Alejandro Monteverde grew up in Tampico, Mexico, with a heart for storytelling and a dream of one day being a filmmaker. With his family's support, he left his home and traveled north of the border to Austin to enroll at the prestigious University of Texas film school. It's no wonder that with little money and no understanding of the English language, he was twice denied admission to the school. But that didn't stop him. He enrolled in a local community college, learned English and constantly pestered the UT admissions office.
His break came in 1999 when he not only was admitted to film school, but also managed to convince a professor to let him make a film in his first year. Monteverde's vision and determination paid off as his debut project was honored with four international student filmmaking awards. His next film won seven.
The idea for Bella, his third film, came to Monteverde while driving from Texas to Los Angeles.
"As I was driving, I started to daydream and the story came to me all at once, but inspired by three different real life experiences that had happened to close friends of mine," he says. As the emotional plotline unfolded on his trip, he would occasionally have to pull the car over, his vision distorted by tears and his heart overcome by the story itself.
Lead actor Eduardo Verastegui left his humble origins as the son of a cane farmer and headed for Mexico City at age 18 to seek fame in the entertainment industry. His undeniable good looks and talent landed him a spot in a band, Mexico's version of N Sync. That major exposure soon launched an acting career in which he starred in five different telenovellas (soap operas).
Recognized in Mexico by everyone from little girls to grandmothers, Eduardo (often referred to as the Mexican Brad Pitt), decided to further his career in the U.S. by trying his hand at movies, despite the fact that he spoke no English. He landed leading roles in a couple of movies in which he played a woman-chasing Latin lover, and did a steamy music video with Jennifer Lopez—all things that would soon weigh on his conscience.
Eduardo's English was improving, thanks to a coach who also happened to be a committed Christian. She missed few opportunities to challenge him about the lifestyle he had been living and the reputation he had been advancing through his music and acting roles. "Through all the things she told me ... I realized that all the reasons I wanted to be in this career were very superficial," he says. "And I didn't want to be that man. I realized not only had I hurt my family and friends and myself, but what broke my heart is when I realized that I offended God. That was so painful."
Eduardo dealt with the guilt for months before realizing that "all the sins of the world are nothing but a drop of water compared to God's mercy. I gave my life completely to Him, and I realized for the first time the purpose of life, and that is to know and to love and to serve the Lord Jesus Christ."
That commitment eventually led to a decision that would keep him from accepting the kind of roles that had characterized his early career. "I decided, I will never touch a woman until I marry. I will never kiss anyone until I marry."
That was a bold decision for the man People En Espanol magazine named one of the world's 50 Most Beautiful People. But to Eduardo, the conviction to make "meaningful films that have the potential to touch people's hearts and minds" was more important than fame. When he met Monteverde and heard about the idea for "Bella," he became excited about the opportunity to use his acting skills make a quality, moral movie.
"Family is the foundation of society for the Hispanic culture and I want to pursue projects that show how families protect, help, and love each other," says Verastegui. "Both Alejandro and I wanted to show the Latino Culture in a positive way without being unrealistic."
So now with an actor and director, they just needed a businessman to complete the team.
Leo Severino, the son of Colombian immigrants, graduated from USC law school in 1999. Two years later he was director of business affairs for Fox Network Group. His star was rising with Fox, but he was dissatisfied with the Hollywood culture and with working on projects to which he was morally and philosophically opposed.
During a chance meeting with Verastegui outside church in 2004, things started to fall into place. "I wanted to do something that could show humanity as hopeful and as beautiful and uplifting. Not something dark but as light ... I knew within five minutes of speaking to Eduardo that we were going to work together. And so we started Metanoia Films, which is a light in the darkness. That's what we're trying to be."
Metanoia Films—Changing Hearts
Actor + director + producer = production company. And with an emerging script, all they needed now was funding. They met with Philadelphia businessman Sean Wolfington who saw into the hearts of the three amigos (as they call themselves) and decided to support the movie. This in spite of being advised by a veteran producer friend, Steven McEveety ("Braveheart," "The Passion of the Christ"), to keep his money away from the risky project. Eventually, though, even McEveety realized that the film was special and joined the team as executive producer.
Since then, that risky project has made an impact in some unlikely places. "Bella" was given a special award by the Smithsonian Institution and Monteverde was given an award from the Department of Immigration. He also was recognized by President Bush during the 2007 State of the Union address.
"If you would have told me that we were going to get into Toronto, I would have been surprised," Wolfington said. "That we were going to win Toronto, I would have been blown away. That we would be invited to the White House. That the President and First Lady would watch the film. That the Department of Immigration was going to give our director an award. That the Smithsonian was going to recognize our team. I wouldn't have believed it."
The Toronto award is especially gratifying as it is often an early predictor of a film's potential in the Academy Awards. Since 1978, 18 People's Choice winners have garnered 69 Oscar nominations and 19 statues. These films have included "Chariots of Fire," "Life is Beautiful" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
Even if Bella doesn't make it to the Oscars, its journey so far has been incredible—one the Metanoia team say has been blessed by God. All because three guys were faithful to the calling He gave them.
Copyright © 2007 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.