2007, PG-13, 91 min. Directed by Alejandro G. Monteverde. Starring Eduardo Verástegui, Tammy Blanchard, Manny Perez, Angélica Aragón, Jaime Tirelli, Ali Landry, Ramon Rodriguez.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 26, 2007
Bella is, indeed, a beautiful film. The bustling, cab-crowded thoroughfares of New York City have rarely looked as inviting and the coastline as momentously beachy as they do in this film. Monteverde's film was shot by cinematographer Andrew Cadelago (both men are University of Texas graduates) with an unusual attention to detail for what is essentially a character study of two people. This only adds to the nuance and sense of grace inherent in Verástegui's and Blanchard's performances, both of which are models of emotional restraint and resonance. Forget Uta Hagen for a moment, and watch these two actors give pitch-perfect performances in what could have been a soppy, overwrought melodrama. They aren't just in the moment; they are the moment. Jose (Verástegui of Chasing Papi and many a Mexican TV soap) is the chef and Nina (Blanchard) a waitress at the Cuban bistro owned by Jose's brother Manny (Perez). When Nina shows up late for work two days in a row, Manny fires her, and Jose exits as well. Nina's just discovered she's pregnant, and Jose, who arrives onscreen with a mysterious past and haunted eyes, chooses to spend the day roaming around New York before taking Nina, who plans to abort the fetus, to his family's beachfront home on the coast. We learn in the film's many capsule flashbacks that five years ago Jose was a famous soccer star on the verge of signing a major sports deal, and we know immediately, from the way he sits on the beach, his long hair and bushy beard tousled by the sea breeze, that this is a film about redemption and grace. There's been some hue and cry about the film's subject matter (i.e., will she or won't she?) from people with too much free time on their hands, but the only thing that should be inflamed by this gentle, graceful film is your heart. Although the question of termination hangs heavy over Bella – both Nina and Jose lose their jobs, Nina has money problems, and the portentous flashbacks surely bode ill for someone as yet unknown – this is a film that embraces and celebrates the possibility for change and growth, both without and within, both personal and spiritual. Verástegui and Blanchard's platonic chemistry is undeniable (although Perez seems to be riffing on John Leguizamo for some reason), and alongside Monteverde's unobtrusive direction it makes Bella into something far more interesting and affecting than the mediocre telenovela it could have been. The film won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006.