[Christianity Today Movies; October 26, 2007]
The energy in the kitchen of an elegant Mexican restaurant in Manhattan is cranking up steadily, as the staff braces for the noon rush. One waitress, Nina, is running late, which is becoming a habit. She dashes in at the last minute, but Manny, the owner, tells her this is one time too many, and fires her on the spot.
As Nina storms out, the head chef, Manny’s brother Jose (a mysteriously tragic guy, peeking out through a forest of beard and hair), follows her outside to make sure she’s OK. When he learns that she is pregnant, he walks away from the restaurant and spends the day at her side, compelled for unknown reasons to try to help her. Over the course of the day, their conversations, encounters, and decisions will send changes rippling through many lives, over many years.
I can’t say much more about the plot without giving away spoilers, but rest assured that “Bella” is well worth seeing for yourself. It’s a quiet film, carried along mostly on the conversation between Nina and Jose. Nina makes it clear early on that she will not have the baby. Her situation is one all too sadly common, and the reasons that she gives for being unable to raise a child, or even to bear one to place for adoption, are all too familiar. Jose does not try to argue with her—but he listens. And gradually Nina discloses more and more of her life, so we can see what steps brought her to that day. Jose has some history of his own to reveal, as well.
It’s not exactly an action movie, but it’s not all talk either. As Nina and Jose make their way through New York they encounter plenty that is interesting to watch. They look eccentric themselves, he in his white chef’s jacket, and her in the gaudy flowered dress that is her waitress uniform. “Bella” is always inviting to watch; shots are framed and color is used in ways that are creative and consistently effective, without being show-offy. The sound track ranges from Rosemary Clooney and Nina Simone to steamy dance music (Spanish) and scratchy-voiced sincerity (English), and it’s all right on target.
I also admired the way time is layered in the film. We see scenes that occur both before and after the single day that Jose and Nina spend together, but we don’t know how those scenes fit into the bigger story. In some movies this kind of thing is used in a flashy way, to startle viewers and hopefully impress them, but here they’re part of an organic larger story. As they fall into place it feels very natural; these time shifts serve the story, rather than dominate it for zip and dazzle purposes.
This is a first film for director Alejandra Gomez Monteverdi, and the two stars, Tammy Blanchard and Eduardo Verastegui, are also new to Hollywood. Blanchard carries the intense role of Nina gracefully, applying restraint in a role that could have easily turned melodramatic. Even in a scene where she must to turn on a dime from angry to sobbing, Blanchard makes it smooth. She’s immensely believable; her Nina is no drama-school concoction, but a likeable, ordinary person facing a heartbreaking situation.
Her costar, Eduardo Verastegui is a good match for her, rendering Jose not so much brooding as shipwrecked. Verastegui is an interesting character in his own right. For years he was a hugely successful soap opera star and singer, “the Brad Pitt of Mexico.” But after experiencing a deeper commitment to his Roman Catholic faith, Verastegui began to regret his part in reinforcing adulterous “Latin lover” stereotypes. In a speech this past May to the annual pro-life Rose Dinner in Ottawa, Verastegui said that some of his earlier work had sent messages that are “poisoning society.” He went on, “It broke my heart…I realized that I was offending God.” He summed up, “I wasn’t born to be famous or rich. I was born to know and love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In a chance encounter at his church, he met movie producer Leo Severino, and they formed Metanoia Films in order to produce movies that can persuasively present an alternative view (“metanoia” is the biblical Greek word for “repentance”). Some Christians would find it tempting to make a blaringly obvious, preachy movie, but Verastegui and Severino have wisely opted for quality instead. “Bella” is beautiful to watch and hard to resist.
About the only flaw in the film became clear to me as the end drew near: I saw that the characters just were never going to get any deeper than they are. It’s a good story and the ending wasn’t what I expected—but by that point I expected something more or less along those lines. It’s a bit pat, I’d say. The characters harbor no ambiguities; when the credits roll, we can feel sure that we’ve learned all there is to know about them. Despite that minor disappointment, the ending still brought tears in my eyes, and left me feeling awed and grateful for the beauty of family. I can see why the film won a standing ovation and the Toronto Film Festival, and also the festival’s People’s Choice Award. If “Bella” affects others the way it did me, that’s only the first in a long line of awards that are coming its way.