By Marty Mulrooney
Bella is an independent film directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, starring Eduardo Verastegui (CSI Miami) and Tammy Blanchard (Moneyball, Rabbit Hole). Set in New York City, the film tells the story of a cook named Jose (Verastegui) and a waitress named Nina (Blanchard), and how one act of kindness between them changes both of their lives forever. Bella grossed more than $10 million in domestic box office during its US theatrical release, finishing the year as one of the top 10 independent films of 2007. Bella was recently released in the UK (7th February 2011) on DVD.
Bella is a great little indie flick precisely because it manages to sidestep the conventions of what one would expect from a low budget, character driven drama. Although marketed as a romance, the two leads never share a kiss; I would strongly suggest that the film’s story is actually about trust and friendship, as well as forgiveness and hope. There is a naturalness to the narrative that remains quite charming throughout; there is sometimes a tendency when filming on a low budget to go overboard with dialogue, yet Bella never falls into this trap.
When Nina (Blanchard) is late arriving to the restaurant where she works for the third time in a row, her fiery boss Manny – played superbly by American-Dominican actor Manny Perez – fires her on the sidewalk. Before long, the restaurant’s bearded cook Jose (Verastegui) has taken off after her and Manny is left without the driving force behind his business. As the day progresses, Nina and Jose travel around New York, connecting with each other in ways they had thought were no longer possible. Their journey together that day is one of much more than just distance.
It soon turns out that Nina is actually pregnant and planning to have an abortion, which is why she was late to work. Although this sounds like a heavy plot development, it is in fact handled very tastefully. Jose is developed superbly as a character, perhaps because he never offers Nina hollow compliments or tells her everything will be okay. Instead, he listens intently and tries to help her reach her own decisions. I was surprised how engaging it was to see Nina do most of the talking, whilst Jose often replied with facial expressions alone.
Of course, Jose has a big problem too. Through flashback, we are shown a clean shaven, energetic, charming young man with his whole life ahead of him. This is the Jose of long ago, a superstar who is on the brink of signing a multi-million dollar soccer contract. Yet on the way to signing the deal, he has a terrible car accident that makes him give up on his dreams forever, hiding behind a heavy beard and retreating into himself. His own pain in unbearable, which is why his kindness towards Nina is so beautiful and selfless.
A lesser film would have Jose putting his football boots back on again – the film actually teases this at one point but wisely stays far away from the idea – or Nina asking Jose to marry her so they can raise the child together. Instead, the resolution ends up being more symbolic than anything else. Jose manages to, if not forgive himself, then begin to make amends for his past mistakes. Nina isn’t painted as the perfect woman who could never turn her back on a child either. Instead, the ending is uplifting in a way where everything clicks together satisfyingly. To say anything more would be to spoil the overarching narrative, but suffice to say: it works surprisingly well.
Bella is worth watching for a whole host of reasons. The soundtrack is great (Wild Horses by The Rolling Stones is now cemented in my mind as the song from Bella) and the direction consistently strong. The central performances are also superb, adding weight to moral messages that offer well-informed opinions rather than simply dictating to the viewer. Not everything is perfect – truth be told, the core storyline has been done before in films of far greater scope – yet, slight as it sometimes is, Bella is a modern-day fairytale that optimistically paints fate as a force for good: everything happens for a reason.
8 OUT OF 10