Talk to the creators of Bella, a quiet new film with a pro-life theme, and their faces often get a certain look: incredulous, even wonder-struck. Most of the time, they cannot believe their humble production has come so far.
And far it has come for a $3 million movie with an executive producer who had never made films, a director who had never made a feature-length film, and a lead actor who was jobless for three years. Last year Bella won the prestigious People's Choice Award at the world's largest film festival in Toronto, competing against Oscar winners such as The Departed and The Queen. In the United States it opens in 30 cities Oct. 26.
Already the film has captured the imagination of mainstream critics and Christians alike. The story follows José (Eduardo Verástegui), a rising soccer star whose career upends when he runs over and kills a little girl. Years later, working as a gentle but haunted chef in his brother's New York restaurant, he learns that friend Niña (Tammy Blanchard) is pregnant and alone. In helping her, he finds renewal.
Bella is the first production of Metanoia Films, the film company created by Verástegui, director Alejandro Monteverde, and Leo Severino, a Los Angeles lawyer. The "3 Amigos" are devout Catholics who want to create Christian-themed films to uplift and inspire. In Bella they accomplish that and more: The film has a spare but elegant cast and storyline. José and Niña deal with burdensome, life-changing hurts with an understated resilience appealing to ordinary people. There is no Hollywood redemption here, where the hero loses fame and riches but regains all in the end; instead, he gains character.
José's internal journey is much like Verástegui's, and to understand the story of Bella one has to understand the Mexican actor. A week before Bella's national release, Verástegui cinched over an hour in Washington between promotional appearances and adoring fans to sit down with WORLD.
Ask Verástegui how he prepared for his role, and he begins his story not with his reading of Bella's script, but years earlier. The son of a sugar cane farmer, Verástegui, 33, left his small town at 18 to become an actor. He rose to become a popular Mexican soap opera star, boy band singer, and a generally acknowledged sex symbol. In one music video, he appeared as Jennifer Lopez's gypsy lover. In Latino-populated cities such as Miami, he still attracts hordes of screaming girls.
Having filled stadiums in Latin America, Verástegui wanted to make it in Hollywood. He moved to Miami, "the capital of Latin America," and in 2003 landed-without speaking any English-the lead in Chasing Papi, a story about a man with three girlfriends. He simply memorized pages of script and winged it. But when it came time to promote the film, he grew restless. "I realized, 'Hold on-I don't even like this film,'" he said. "It's been 13 years of career [ambition]-what am I doing?"
It was a question his new English language tutor, a Christian, kept pressing as well. If he loved God, he soon understood, he would be willing to die to his ambitions. "There was just a moment where I knew that I was offending God," he said, followed by "tears and tears" and a new resolve to use his talents honorably. Disgusted with the movie business, he almost became a jungle missionary in Brazil, until a priest told him Hollywood is a jungle, too.
In Los Angeles, he turned to his Bible and turned down raunchy roles. "The next woman I kiss will be my wife," he told his bewildered agents. They told him he would never work in Hollywood again.
"From the '40s until today, [Latinos] have been stereotyped in a very negative way in the media, always the bandido, the criminal, the thief . . . and if you are good looking, then you are the Don Juan Latin lover," Verástegui said. "In other words, the womanizer-liar who is using women as an object and treating himself as an object as well. Very few times you see that Latinos have the opportunity of being heroes . . . real heroes, men of integrity. A man who is willing to sacrifice to help his wife, his children, his friends, his family."
Verástegui searched for such dignified roles, all the while wondering if he would have to create one himself. About the same time, he reconnected with Bella director and friend Alejandro Monteverde, an award-winning University of Texas film student. Monteverde slept on Verástegui's couch and wrote the film's script.
Just as the rent money dried up, the friends met wealthy entrepreneur Sean Wolfington, who was looking for a new project to finance. He consulted friend Steve McEveety-producer of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ-about backing Bella. "Have you signed anything?" McEveety asked, dismayed at the director's inexperience and tight, 3 1/2-week New York shooting schedule. "[Then] run for the hills." But Wolfington felt drawn in, and after watching the film, McEveety later signed on as an executive producer.
Monteverde was determined to show a new Verástegui to the actor's old fans. He wrote José's taciturn character with a shaggy beard and baggy clothes so Verástegui could not rely on his looks.
Bella's creators hope the film will affect the abortion debate and directly influence women considering abortions. The film has already had an indirect effect on two pregnant women. Researching his role at an L.A. abortion clinic before the shooting, Verástegui persuaded a Latino couple to keep their baby, whom they named Eduardo.
Verástegui also learned that a friend in Florida wanted his girlfriend to abort their child. Seven hours before the procedure, Verástegui talked to him over the phone and offered to adopt the child. He sent the friend a video of an abortion. The couple kept their baby girl-and named her Bella. "I was going to pay $800 to destroy this miracle," her father said.
As Bella the movie makes the theater rounds, its creators marvel at how far they have come. Verástegui hopes this will be the first of many Metanoia films but knows he cannot guarantee its success. "Even if it doesn't happen, what else can you ask for?" he said. "You've got two babies."