I recently spent a Shabbat in Jerusalem at the Bar Mitzvah of a friend’s son. My friends had converted to Judaism a number of years ago, and now their youngest son was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel. During the course of this joyous weekend, we reminisced about their spiritual journey, which began in earnest in a restaurant in Prague. There they met my son Ezra who struck up a conversation with them and showed them one of the famous synagogues in the city. Ezra put them in touch with me in Denver many months later where they enrolled at a Denver Jewish day school at which I was principal. The journey continued with a move to Rochester, New York, where they officially converted to Judaism and were re-married according to Jewish law. As we talked over dinner in Jerusalem, the wife reminded me that their journey began in a little conversation in Prague which changed the lives of the family forever. One moment in a life can have everlasting ripple effects.
“One moment can change your life forever” is the advertising mantra for Bella, and it proves to be true in the case of Jose, a star soccer player, who on the day of his contract signing experiences a life-changing moment. Infused with the excitement of playing professional soccer, he loses his concentration while driving his car and causes a horrible accident. The terrible effects of this tragedy haunt him as he struggles to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. Near the beginning of the film, one of the characters says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” This adage of an old grandmother highlights one of the essential messages of the movie; namely, that we are not in full control of our destinies, and it is foolish to think that we are. One day can change everything.
Jose works as the chief chef in a restaurant owed by his adopted brother. He is a master chef; but when he sees his brother treat Nina, a waitress, callously, he leaves the kitchen to console Nina after she has been fired. We find out that Nina is pregnant, and morning sickness has caused her lateness. As Jose and Nina walk the streets of New York together, they meet a blind street vendor with a sign behind his stand which reads: “God closed my eyes. Now I can see.” This sets the stage for each of the main characters to undergo a spiritual transformation, which brings with it a new understanding of life and its adversities.
The street sign with its message of hope provides the spiritual subtext of Bella. Jose and Nina both have experienced hard times; yet Jose, especially, tries to use his tragic past to build a hopeful future for himself and Nina. Jose is a man of faith who comes from a family of faith. They say grace before eating and are mindful of the presence of God in their lives. They celebrate life together and are joyful in relationship with friends. Their wisdom and energy are infectious, and Nina basks in their warm presence.
Through a day’s quiet conversation between Jose and Nina, Nina overcomes her aversion towards carrying her baby to term, and decides to accept motherhood. To Jose, this represents an affirmation of life. Jose values people and values life; and his goal is affirm life not only by encouraging Nina to have her child, but also by reprimanding his brother when he treats his employees cavalierly. He berates his brother for only being concerned about business, and not caring enough about the people who work for him. “It’s all about you,” he shouts when he wants to brother to think about his workers.
There is much to admire in Bella. It is about being sensitive to the trials and tribulations of others. It is also about repentance. How do we atone for a grave sin? How can we get forgiveness from someone who is no longer alive? Do we have to atone for a sin that we committed inadvertently? All these questions are discussed in the codes of Jewish law, and the dilemmas that Jose faces can be viewed in the classic context of Jewish repentance literature. Moreover, the film demonstrates the value of family as a positive force to help one overcome challenges in life. A loving and supportive family is critical to Jose’s ability to cope with personal tragedy. Other people might choose illicit drugs to escape a painful reality, but Jose is not part of that culture.
Above all, Bella presents not only a story of personal tragedy and redemption, but also a story of one act of kindness that is transformational in the life of one person, Nina. The Ethics of the Fathers reinforces the importance of kindness when it tells us that it is one of the three pillars upon which the world is based (Avot 1:2). Kindness is an eternal attribute of the Jewish people, and this seminal life lesson of kindness is embedded in the gentle and thoughtful narrative of Bella.