Monday, October 29, 2007

Bella: Weighing In

I could only Twitter about it on Saturday, and even now I am dashing this off (to be continued!) as my sister, mom and brother in law wait for me so we can go to dinner to celebrate two birthdays (mine and my sister's)... But I see that I am not the only Catholic who was eager to see the much-vaunted movie that turned out to be the cinematic disappointment of the year, at least for me. In fact, I am relieved that Barbara Nicolosi has panned it. I feel vindicated that someone in her league had similar reactions.
Before I continue, I would like to remind the gentle readers of a few principles, the first being "de gustibus non disputandum" (or is it disputandam? Dad would know, but he's in heaven.) So: taste is personal.
Second principle: people's pristine intentions and good will do not guarantee an effective or worthwhile result. We can applaud the desire and bemoan the outcome at the same time.
Third principle: if you are attempting to engage culture in its own language and with its own genres, you have to measure up to the culture's standards.

Sr. Helena, our community screenwriter, asked me how I liked the movie. She had seen it in a private screening months ago and loved it, which is why I had been really looking forward to seeing it myself.
Instead, I was bored out of my mind.
She was nonplussed. "Oh, it's European in style."
"No it's not. It's just very earnest, and it has no real storyline."
"Well," she said,"what did you not like about it?"
"Besides the lack of story? Well, for one: I didn't care about the characters."
"Oh, that's not good."
"I didn't know who they were; how could I be invested in them? And another thing: I resent it when a movie goes for the emotional jugular. I end up suspecting that it is a substitute for content."
"That's a no-no," she admitted.
"And there were so many little irregularities that I just gave up trying to suspend my disbelief:
in the first ten minutes, when Jose' is practicing his interview, he can barely speak English. Where did he grow up? Why does his Mexican mother not have an accent, and he can't speak English? Then he's the top chef in a Manhattan restaurant, and he's working in the kitchen with a bushy beard and full head of hair and no hair net? Not even a hat? Eww."
"Oh, the food stuff!" Sr. Helena laughed at that. She always teases me for being a foodie. But that wasn't my only foodie point.
"What is his culture? When they get to the lady friend's restaurant, he orders paella and tells Nina it's good for the baby. Paella is from Spain. Why is a Puerto-Rican-Mexican-American man talking about paella and babies?"
Then there is the New York stuff. The movie is written as if to pander to New Yorkers. "Oh, just a typical New York day." Then the invitation to go to the beach. What beach? Only New Yorkers know what this means and where they went. I lived in New York for three years (long, long ago) and never really got too far past the concrete jungle.
And then the last scene, with the monstrous butterfly hovering over the threesome. That was an out of place, tiresome cliche'.
Barbara N. thinks Bella can't be characterized as a pro-life movie. I think it could be used in catechetical sessions, but you would need to really facilitate a discussion in order to direct the interpretation in a solidly pro-life vein. It does trot out a lot of the slogans the "pro-choice" people use, but at least in one case, I thought they did a good job rendering it against itself--where Nina says, "If I'm going to carry a living being for nine months..." The "living being" is something that abortion providers would rather avoid talking about. So I think there is at least a line or two that can be made use of in catechesis.
So while Mom enjoyed the movie, I came out of the theater with a migraine, wondering about the money that had been sunk into the project and how on earth an audience in Toronto, of all places, could have given it any kind of serious attention. (Barbara has some insights into that aspect.)
It seems to me that, as sterling as the intentions of the producers surely were, Bella has succeeded only in creating new obstacles for Catholic screenwriters and producers to get past in their attempts to provide genuinely high quality material for Hollywood.


Maureen said...

Oh, Sister, thank you for saving me the time, effort and money. I had been regretting not getting out to see it over the weekend (and dragging along my thirteen year old daughter).

Happy birthday, too!

ShaneFC said...

Hi Sr. Anne, I was happy to learn about your blog today in the SF Chronicle interview. I saw Bella this weekend and very much enjoyed it and felt like it really did meet our culture's standards for quality of the story line, its dramatic development, and production values. The plot development was unusual in that it was non-linear in time, jumping from past to present to future, but I felt that the way this technique was used in the film really added to the drama in terms of revealing the plot in an engaging way. I am totally with you on the need to care about the the characters to enjoy a film -- if I don't care about the characters, I won't like the movie no matter what other good qualities it has. But for me the characters in Bella really grabbed me and I spent the whole movie wondering and caring what was going to happen to them. So I would encourage people to give this movie a chance.

And please continue to pray for me, I am a computer programmer working on web applications and I learned in your interview that you frequently pray for people in my field. Thank you very much for doing that. I am happy to know there is someone praying for my profession and it's impact on our world.

Tom said...

Dear Sister Anne,
How do I email you a new communiations strategy for your consideration?
Tom Gallagher

xaipe said...

Shane: Glad you liked Bella! I'm happy to be wrong in my declamations...
Tom: I will contact you if you provide me your email or blog address through the comment feature here. You can use "clues" if you don't want to risk getting spam...

Fred said...

I haven't seen the movie and probably won't...unless my people want me to, for discussion purposes...I had a feeling that this was an exploitive effort from the beginning...considering all the pre-release hype...that's usually a good sign of "no content." And thanks for speaking your mind and not bowing to the "common opinion." I can always depend on you for that!
And Happy Birthday...I am off the New Orleans and hope to meet your Mom on Sunday at St. Dominic...Tell her I will be the one wearing the gold vestments...Praise God!
Father Fred. CMF

Tom said...


klaire said...

Bella only has to be "good enough" to change the heart of one pregnant women. One life saved equates to one huge success! I suspect we can all agree on that!


Angela said...

Sister, I respect your opinion and appreciated reading your review, though my university friends and I all loved it.

xaipe said...

Amen, Klaire!
Angela, I guess I'm just out of the "taste loop" when it comes to contemporary approaches to storytelling... St. Paul would say, "As long as Christ is being proclaimed, that is what gives me joy."

a_inkwell said...

Sister Ann, thanks for the thoughtful insights! My husband is the pickiest movie goer and this might not make for the best date movie! :) We'll be debating it for the rest of the night!!!

I've also sent you an e-mail at your Yahoo account. I just wanted to make you aware of it since you've indicated that you don't check it often!!!

Jan said...

First-timer to your blog after reading sfgate article! I want to thank you for your comments on Bella. Despite reading the pre-release hype, my friends and I were also not overly impressed with Bella. Found the flashbacks & flashforwards slightly annoying and drawn out. Also bothered by the free-flowing beard and hair in the kitchen! Ugh! Never would be allowed! Although the movie was pleasant, the heavy promotion as a particularly pro-life movie had me believing this would be a prominent theme in the movie. Not really...or too subtle, although implied with talk of adoption! Of course, perhaps something heavier would have been unpalatable to a mainstream audience. Then--POSSIBLE SPOILER FOLLOWING--DON'T READ FURTHER IF HAVEN'T SEEN MOVIE--while I'd like to attribute nobler reasons for the action Jose took at end of movie, I came away believing he took the action to assuage his guilt at the earlier tragedy; he actually was portrayed as a pretty dysfunctional character despite his gentleness and caring for the young woman. I certainly did not see him as the "best parent" for a child. If the man had convinced the pregnant woman instead to find a loving mom and dad for the child, I would have found this less self-serving. And then to relegate the child to visits from this biological mom every 5 years, as it again implied, was not right. As my non-Catholic friend remarked, "Sad, if that is the best we hold up for babies saved from abortion."

Anyway, thanks much for your honest review. Would love to hear your take on new movie August Rush which I just saw last night in San Francisco free screening. Loved it!

Anonymous said...

The oft heard quote which you mentioned is "de gustibus non est disputandem"...spqr

Charity Therese said...

Haven't seen Bella yet, but it sounds interesting!
Happy Birthday too!

Anonymous said...

Agree plus I also had a problem w/her going to work in a restaurant in sandals with no socks! That's against the law here in NY and I even got to ask the producer about that at a screening last year. He laughed it off, but he did point out a couple of "symbolism" things that were kind of cool (but I'd never have picked out had I not known...) like the flowered dress she wore was supposed to be a nod to OLofG.

And as a NYa, I also kept wondering: Jones Beach? Rye? I think I remember a commuter train, but was it LIRR or MetroNorth?

Plus I was very annoyed at the father who refused to learn English, even though it was this English-speaking country that allowed him to live and raise a family in comforts that he obviously wouldn't have had in his home country.

But, to be truthful: talk about leading-man good looks! That never hurts. ;-)


Anonymous said...

Jose was worth the price of admission. harv