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 José (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 José and Nina, who makes it clear early on that she does not intend to 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. José 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. José 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 José 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 José and Nina spend together, but we don't initially 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 Alejandro Monteverde, and the two stars, Tammy Blanchard and Eduardo Verástegui, 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.