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.
Her costar, Verástegui (Chasing Papi), is a good match for her, rendering José not so much brooding as shipwrecked. Verástegui 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, Verástegui 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, Verástegui 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 Verástegui and Severino have wisely opted for quality instead—without sacrificing the clarity of its life-affirming message. 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: 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 to 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 People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. 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.Discussion starters
- Nina and José talk about the families they grew up in. Which is more like your own family of origin? Which kind of family do you think is more common?
- At the turning point of José's story, his manager gives him advice that could save his career. How might José's life been different if he had taken that advice?
- We see many delicious meals prepared in this film. Why do you think the director chose to repeat these images of painstaking care in the cooking and presenting of food? What bearing does it have on the film's theme? When was the last time someone prepared a meal for you this carefully?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Bella is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief disturbing images. There is a car accident scene, and we see some very distressed characters, as well as a bloody victim of the crash. Though this is brief, it may be disturbing for young children. Additionally, the themes and pacing are probably too "mature" for younger kids, though there's some great discussion fodder for early teens and up.
Photos © Copyright Metanoia Films
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