To all who have seen and loved Bella, I apologize for the following. (Flashbacks to Juno.) It’s difficult when a film comes highly recommended and one takes a different view. It seems that with Bella, we have a film that strongly upholds certain moral values, something that appeals to a lot of people on an important level. For many, the upholding of moral values is perhaps the chief criterion of film evaluation. Even if it’s not, those values are of such importance to some viewers that a cinematic celebration of them essentially forgives a multitude of filmic sins, causing one to praise a morally upright film despite its shortcomings. Because of this author’s sympathy and even affinity for good, old-fashioned values, that aspect of the film won’t be criticized. What will be admitted, however, is a fascinated preference for the sorts of films that reflect traditional mores seemingly inadvertently. Children of Men might be an example of this phenomenon. Another preference is for artists who ask important questions and point “toward” the answers rather than “to” them. The premier cinematic example of this approach is embodied in the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose Decalogue (here and here) transcendentally raises the viewer to an ethereal and liminal place between the here and the there. Kieslowski’s profundity and complete absence of pretense enraptures the spectator while still leaving him/her in a place free to conclude the explanations behind the artist’s suggestions. Pragmatically, good seems to have been done through the film Bella, as many people have been encouraged by its ethics. (Simply search WordPress for this film and, in between innumerable posts on the Twilight movie, you’ll find posts exclusively devoted to the beauty of Bella‘s moral narrative. I searched and searched but didn’t find a single critical review – by which I don’t mean “negative.”)
Bella was directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, whose love affair with Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was evident through practically every frame, to say nothing of the nearly identical soundtrack. Extensive use of the train, the beach, and a doctor’s office as settings further alluded to that wonderful film. Monteverde’s camerawork was oddly flashy for what otherwise tried not to be a flashy film. Constant cross-cutting and jump-cutting felt out of place and dizzying. Perhaps it was Monteverde’s attempt to keep a sort of MTV aesthetic to an otherwise slow narrative. The camera shots were not only short in duration, but short in depth of range. Crisp foregrounds juxtaposed with fuzzy backgrounds in an obsession with mid-to-close-range shots. This technique created a claustrophobic effect that might have fit with Nina’s point of view, if the film has positioned itself with Nina, but it didn’t. To say that it was shot from José’s point of view is closer to the truth, but its treatment of José as a sort of enigmatic Christ-figure (his name even reminiscent of “Jesús,” and his beard and hair fit the clichéd renditions) distanced him from identification with the spectator, de-suturing him from the audience’s realm of experience. Though tormented from a past accident, an accident it was. José is quite sinless throughout the film, and Nina’s flirtation with what is strongly presented as an immoral choice demands identification with the audience. Monteverde no doubt was aware of this, but, not wanting the film to come across as a propaganda tract, kept the POV with José, despite the incongruities.
Discursus. The film Being There features the unparalleled Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener, a friendly but oblivious middle-aged hermit whose only world consists of watching television and gardening. Once he enters the outside world, he encounters influential and wealthy members of the upper-class who mistake his senseless ramblings about gardening for beautiful parables with profound ramifications for human life. Chance (whose name is misunderstood to be Chauncey Gardiner) befriends the US President, who takes him on as a chief advisor in a time of economic crisis. The entire country becomes enthralled with Chance and the national vernacular moves in a decidedly botanical direction. The comedic story of Being There shares a certain uncanniness not with the story of Bella, but with the film itself. This became apparent most of all at the level of symbolism, which the film employs so overtly that it borders on the scopophilic. Whenever there is food nearby, the camera can’t wait to train itself on it. Apparently trained chefs were involved in the production, because a variety of lovely Hispanic-themed dishes are exploited throughout the film. But the visual emphasis on the food itself deprives the symbolism of its potential meaning. When the food is eaten and enjoyed, it is in the context of family and relationships. Even the restaurant staff’s meal is called a “family” meal. The celebration of life and love is laudable, but it’s easy to miss it when the food itself is overemphasized. Just as symbolically overt is the gardening theme. Nina’s dress throughout the film is covered in flowers. She and José encounter a blind beggar who asks only that Nina describe the day to him. She replies by telling him about nearby flowers, of which he has a rich understanding. When Nina and José arrive at José’s family’s home, the two of them join with José’s father to do some planting in the yard. At the early scene of the film’s central accident, the ill-fated little girl is playing with what seems to be a variety of butterfly. The camera zooms in on the butterfly at multiple points, before and after the girl’s death. These examples felt a little like Chance’s gardening banter. This film is good at talking about one thing, but it seems restricted to one thing. By engaging a subject so inherently ripe with meaning and importance, the hard work was already done. One of the great things about Children of Men was the connections it made between human life and the other maladies of the human condition. Its semiotics was exploratory rather than explanatory, much like that of Kieslowski’s Decalogue. These works from Kieslowski and Cuarón leave the viewer with a sense of intellectual, spiritual, and practical empowerment. Bella may have its place as a melodramatic answer to an important question, but it leaves its audience looking back and not forward.