At last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Bella joined the likes of Chariots of Fire, American Beauty, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hotel Rwanda as the winner of the coveted People’s Choice Award. While the award does not, by any means, clinch an Oscar nod, it worked for each of the aforementioned films. Regardless of future acclaim, Bella is an irrefutably effortless and heart-warming film, another indie gem with a deep soul and a beautiful message.
Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a man with a tragic secret. Once a devastatingly handsome soccer star on a meteoric rise, the disgraced Jose now hides from himself behind a long, unkempt beard and from the world in the kitchen of his brother Manny’s (Manny Perez) Manhattan restaurant. Nothing can woo him from his self-imposed exile, except Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a beautiful, careworn waitress with a secret of her own. When Manny fires Nina for repeated tardiness, brought on by morning sickness tied to a just-discovered pregnancy, Jose abandons the kitchen and his brother in the midst of a busy rush to spend the day with his emotionally devastated friend.
Jose and Nina wander the streets of New York City, discussing her pregnancy. We never find out who the father is; for Nina and us, he is “a nobody.” What she is confident about is that she is not keeping the child. Despite Jose’s peculiar and pained reactions to her plans, Nina is determined to terminate her pregnancy. Her’s is not a world any child should have to experience.
As the day shortens and the sun slides toward the sea, the couple finds themselves at Jose’s parents’ Long Island home. There Jose’s Mexican immigrant parents (Angélica Aragón and Jaime Tirelli) lavish love and delicious food on their guest (don’t be surprised if you walk out of this film famished) and for perhaps the first time in her life, Nina experiences the balm of family. Schooled by hard knocks and eaten away by cynicism, Nina is shaken to the core by their kindness. “Did you grow up with that kind of joy,” she asks incredulously, “that kind of love?”
Where Nina is hard and prickly, Jose is soft and compassionate. Perhaps unaware of it, Nina begins to unfold emotionally around her mysterious and somber friend. Before the day is through, Jose must confront the demons of his own past and use his pain as a conduit through which Nina can find the healing and love she so desperately requires.
Inspired by true events, Bella marks the feature directorial debut of the young, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Monteverde, and represents an independent addition to the Mexican juggernaut that pummeled Hollywood last year, taking its small place beside Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan's Labyrinth, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Though burdened by a miniscule budget, Monteverde makes the most of what he has — after all, he has New York City — and turns out a hearty story of loss, family, friendship and the unexpected, irrational power of love.
The film speaks, on one level, to the Mexican experience in America and on another, far wider level, to all of our all-too human needs. While all the principles shine and Blanchard certainly gives a beautiful, if sorrowful, performance, it is former Mexican soap star Verástegui who absolutely shines. As a result of having to act behind a full beard and long hair, Verástegui’s surprisingly nuanced performance comes through almost entirely through his eyes.
Bella is riding a quiet but fierce grassroots groundswell. The film has already swept Latino festivals, and has been honored by the Smithsonian and White House. At the risk of sounding like a studio plant, it may sweep you away as well. Bella is a pro-life film without ever necessarily being anti-abortion; a deeply spiritual film without ever being overtly religious. Bella transcends the usual binary loggerheads to speak to that on which we can all agree — the splendor of love, the power of family, and the enchantment of a child’s laughter.