Bella Bolstered by Catholic Connections
Now that the much-anticipated film Bella has hit screens nationwide, the story of its religious background can be told.
LOS ANGELES — Bella boasted some impressive figures when it opened in limited release nationwide on Oct. 26.
The movie won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. But what audiences won’t see is the very Catholic background of the movie.
The story of actor Eduardo Verástegui’s conversion and journey back to the Catholic faith of his childhood has been widely reported, but what hasn’t been told is the amazing back-story that the Catholic faith played in bringing together the filmmakers and bringing the film to the screen.
Sean Wolfington is co-producer and financier of the movie. It was through his involvement with the Regnum Christi movement that he met Hollywood producer Steve McEveety, who had produced the blockbuster The Passion of the Christ and who served as an executive producer for Bella.
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York also played a key role.
Verástegui credits Legionary Father Juan Rivas, whose Spanish-language radio program Hombre Nuevo is an international hit, for keeping him in acting. After Verástegui’s return to the practice of his Catholic faith, he thought about leaving acting to become a missionary. Through spiritual direction with Father Rivas, the priest helped the actor to discern how he could use his talents for good.
“Father Rivas told him, ‘You can go to the jungles of South America, but the U.S. is its own jungle. Hollywood needs actors who can make meaningful projects,’” explained Wolfington.
It took three years for Verástegui to find such a role, through his connection with fellow Mexican-born director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. Monteverde convinced Verástegui to move to Los Angeles. It was there that he met Fox business executive Leo Severino at daily Mass.
Most of the people at Mass were older, so Verástegui stuck out. Severino noticed that Verástegui was always deep in prayer after Mass. One day Severino noticed the young man embracing a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his head buried in the feet of Jesus.
The two eventually met in the parking lot after Mass and quickly learned that they shared the same mission to make movies that matter. Shortly afterward, Severino quit his job at Fox, and the three men created Metanoia Films.
“One confirmation for me in financing the film was that when I met Eduardo, the week before he had met the Pope,” said Wolfington.
Our Lady of Filmmaking
“The film has a lot of gems, just like our faith. It has a lot of depth, yet is accessible,” said Wolfington. “One unique thing about the Catholic faith is the use of symbols and interactions. The film itself has more symbols than most.”
One of the film’s prominent symbols is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the pro-life movement.
After Bella’s completion, the filmmakers visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico three times.
“Right after the film, we went to Our Lady of Guadalupe and said a Rosary,” said Wolfington. “We wanted to get into the Toronto International Film Festival.”
After the film was accepted into the festival the filmmakers returned to the shrine in thanksgiving. After the film unexpectedly won the People’s Choice Award, they returned again in gratitude.
Prior to the film’s opening, it received much support in Church circles. Many dioceses held pre-screenings of the film, as did several Catholic colleges and universities, and Catholic organizations including the Knights of Columbus.
Friars and Filmmakers
As the filmmakers were getting ready to film in New York City, they wanted to prepare with a religious retreat. They turned to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
“Five days before they started filming, they came,” said Father Luke Fletcher, director of vocations for the community. “We gave them a little retreat.”
The friars and the filmmakers hit it off well. In the end, the friars invited the filmmakers and actors to stay at St. Joseph’s Friary in Harlem during the film’s shooting.
For 24 days during the late summer of 2005, Verástegui, producer Severino, and several other staff members rented an office in New York City and stayed with the friars.
“We saw our part as interceding and praying for them,” said Father Fletcher. “They would return after a long day of shooting and we would ask them how it went. It led to a beautiful relationship.”
It also led to something more.
The friars put the word out to other religious communities, too, getting others to pray for the project. Fletcher said that it was common to find Verástegui and others in Eucharistic adoration in the chapel located in the friary where they were staying. Wolfington said that Verástegui spent several nights sleeping in the adoration chapel.
The friendship that developed led the filmmakers to invite Father Fletcher and Brother Paschal Coby to appear as extras in the film during a subway scene. It also led to some humorous moments.
“One day we noticed that our St. Joseph statue was gone,” said Father Fletcher. “They brought it back at the end of the day, but wanted to use it in one of the film’s key moments.”
Father Fletcher said he also witnessed what he described as miracles during the filming.
“They were on location, filming on a low budget outdoors in New York. If they had a few days of rain it would have killed the film,” said Father Fletcher. “On one of the last days they needed some outdoor footage and it was raining. Alejandro went against everyone’s good judgment and decided to film anyway.”
According to Father Fletcher, it was raining all over New York, but in the three-block radius where the filmmakers were shooting, there was no rain.
“We were back at the friary praying,” said Father Fletcher. “Even all of the secular people were saying that it was weird. They described that as a miraculous day.”
“Even the fact that the film received a bigger distribution deal than they ever expected is miraculous,” said Father Fletcher. “It makes you think that God wanted this movie to happen.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota
- November 11-17, 2007