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Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's BELLA (2006) is a heartfelt but slow-moving character drama in which a woman torn by a difficult choice (uh-oh, sounds like I'm writing a tagine here) is given counselling and emotional support by a man trying to make up for past mistakes.
Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) was an up-and-coming soccer star until he accidentally ran over a little girl and spent four years in prison. Now he's the head chef at his adopted brother Manny's swanky Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. His co-worker Nina (Tammy Blanchard) just found out she's pregnant and is considering an abortion because she's "not ready." When Manny fires her for being habitually late, Jose abandons his post and spends the day with her, giving her moral support and trying to persuade her to have the baby and put it up for adoption.
They have dinner with Jose's parents and brother Eduardo (Ramon Rodriguez), who's there with his new fiancee. The close, familial wonderfulness of it all gives Nina second thoughts about having an abortion, although she still doesn't think she can handle motherhood at the moment.
Overall, I found the film to be thoughtful, yet languid and not particularly involving. Following Jose and Nina around as they talk, do stuff, have gently meaningful conversations, and give us a cook's tour of NYC made me feel restless after awhile. The family sequence is pleasant but somewhat indulgent and a little too perfect. The best part is probably when Jose tells Nina the whole story of his tragic accident.
Verástegui portrays Jose as a nice, conscientious guy who's making the best of what life has dumped on him while suffering lingering guilt over the death of the little girl. Blanchard gives Nina a kind of gawky likability, although she's a bit too ingratiating for me. I kept hearing director Monteverde in my head saying, "Don't ya just love 'er?" As Jose's parents, Angélica Aragón and Jaime Tirelli are the usual wise, warm, earthy ethnic mom and pop that Caucasian characters often find exotic and irresistible. My favorite is Manny Perez as the manic Manny (alliterative, ain't it?). I liked him as "Antwan" in ROCKAWAY and he's funny here, all frantic and emotional as he tries to hold his restaurant together.
If the IMDb forums are any indication, BELLA is a source of contention between the pro-life and pro-choice crowds. However, people from both sides claim that the film espouses their viewpoint. I didn't pick up any overtly preachy vibe myself, although the choice Nina eventually makes is implied to be the right one.
The way it's revealed to us at the end is kind of strange--I wasn't sure I'd understood it at first. It left me feeling naggingly unsure about Nina's character, and while I approved of her choice, her handling of it makes her seem more flaky and irresponsible than I'd originally thought. For me, this turned what should've been a tear-jerker ending into more of a head-scratcher.
BELLA is an okay movie--great, in fact, if you go by all the film festival praise it's gotten--but it just didn't do much for me. After replaying the first scene, which shows a lone Jose sitting on the beach wistfully watching children at play, it occurred to me that the whole story might be more effective if I simply thought of it as the guilt-ridden Jose's wish-fulfillment daydream.
Added: Wednesday, July 09, 2008
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