Magic Movie

LOS ANGELES — It’s a movie about a miracle, in a way. But is the movie Bella itself a miracle?

“The fact that the film is going to get a bigger distribution deal than they ever thought they would get is miraculous,” said Father Luke Fletcher, vocations director with the New York-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who appears as an extra in the film. “God wants this movie to happen.”

Less than a year after winning a Toronto International Film Festival award, Bella — a pro-life movie produced by Catholic filmmakers — has found a major distributor.

If all goes as planned, the film, which won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto in 2006, will open in theaters nationwide Oct. 26.

After other distributors passed on the film, industry watchers wondered whether the film would ever find a distributor. But it will be co-distributed through a recent partnership between Roadside Attractions and leading independent film studio Lions Gate Entertainment.

Lions Gate has been the leading distributor of horror films. The company’s interest in Bella represents the distributor’s interest in more family-friendly fare.

“Bella will offer counter-programming for the horror movies distributed near Halloween,” said Sean Wolfington, one of the film’s co-producers. “It will be a little candle amidst the darkness.”

Bella has already garnered a tremendous amount of attention for an independent film. In addition to the Toronto award, the filmmakers were honored by the Smithsonian Latino Center with its “Legacy Award,” honoring role models of Hispanic heritage who have made a significant impact on American culture through their work. And the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services presented the film’s director, Alejandro Monteverde, a 2007 “American by Choice” award.

Two major musicians contributed songs to the film after seeing it. Grammy Award-winning musician Alejandro Sanz donated two songs to the soundtrack, as did Jon Foreman, the lead singer of the band Switchfoot.

The film has received mixed reviews in the secular press (Variety described the film as “mediocre”), but given a more positive reception among faith and family-friendly organizations.

“So slight that a gentle breeze might tip it over, Bella is a film about selfless love that wants to be loved too much,” said Variety in its review. “Manipulative pic trades in fairy-tale views of New York life alongside briefly sustained emotional confessions.”

‘Live for Others’

But others love the film.

Actor Edward James Olmos described it as “one of the most impressive landmark films” that opened the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. He said it was “a film people have to see; it really captures the heart and makes you think. It is one of the best films to come out in a long time.”

“The last film with Bella’s momentum was The Passion of the Christ,” said Steve McEveety, producer of The Passion. “The Passion showed how Christ died for us. Bella shows how we should live for others.”

Some have criticized the film’s ambiguous pro-life theme, which revolves around a waitress who finds herself in an unplanned pregnancy.

Yet, following the summer’s previous films Waitress and Knocked Up, and opening before the movie August Rush, Bella is the latest in a line of films this year about mothers who find themselves in unexpected pregnancies. Yet, it’s one without the foul language and crude humor.

One New York critic finds the string of films surprising.

“I think it’s shocking that the subject of abortion as a choice has been so eliminated from the discussion,” Jennifer Merin, president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, told the Washington Post. “It’s not even on the table.”

Responded columnist Kristen Fyfe: “Feminist, pro-abortion journalists just can’t fathom a world — the real world — where some people, regardless of marital status, will choose to carry a pregnancy to term.”

Columnist Robert Novak said the film “offers hope for the beleaguered anti-abortion movement to reverse the political tide running against it.”

And the writers at responded: “I’m not sure how having a baby somehow strikes a blow to the pro-choice movement, given that childbirth is, you know, a reproductive choice.”

For some, the film represents a trend in Hollywood.

“There has been an outbreak of conservative values,” said Greg Johnson, columnist with the Knoxville News Sentinel. “Call the scripts family values, Hollywood style.”

Bella is a project that has received positive attention from several Catholic groups, including Opus Dei, the Friars of the Renewal, and the Knights of Columbus.

“I urge all of our members and their families to support this film because it gives us a unique opportunity to advance the very goals and principles that the Knights were founded upon — faith, family and the dignity of human life,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “With Bella, we have an incredible opportunity to reach people that may not otherwise ever hear the Catholic message of life and love, and truly make a significant impact in fostering a culture of life in this country.”

Key to the film’s success will be its ability to create a groundswell of interest. The filmmakers have already been busy marketing the film on a grassroots level to faith, family, college and Hispanic leaders across the country. Students at Ave Maria University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and Christendom College held screenings of the film. So did Focus on the Family. Both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have hosted screenings for Hispanic leaders.

The filmmakers hope to recreate the pre-selling of theaters that led to the success of The Passion of Christ. Through pre-selling, groups were able to adopt theaters for special showings of the film the day before its opening.

“We already have over 100 theaters pre-sold,” said Wolfington. “More than 400 people have signed up online and shown interest.”

According to Wolfington, they already have a contact list of more than 11 million individuals.

Some have even compared the film to past Toronto Film Festival winners that have gone on to win Oscars, such as Chariots of Fire, Hotel Rwanda and Life Is Beautiful.

“The film is a crowd pleaser about humanity, family, friendship and the unique magic of New York City,” Eric d’Arbeloff, co-president of Roadside, told the Hollywood Reporter. “Bella will win the hearts and minds of Latino and mainstream audiences alike, and we hope it finds the same success as previous Toronto People’s Choice Award winners Life Is Beautiful, Whale Rider and Hotel Rwanda.”

Said Wolfington: “It’s amazing what the Lord is doing with this little film.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.