"Bella" is without doubt one of the least apologetic blendings of heartfelt intentions, cinematic manipulation, and ultra sentimentality that I have seen in some time. That it won the coveted People's Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival is testament to both the film's effectiveness and the audience's willingness (or need) to give themselves over to such a sentimental concoction. The DVD cover is decorated with ecstatic accolades, including a quote from Tony Bennett proclaiming it the "Best movie of the year!" It is the kind of film that I am torn between giving my heart to and rolling my eyes at, and that is ultimately what makes it so memorable. After viewing it, you will likely spend hours either gushing about it to your friends or warning them to steer clear of it and all of its sappy contrivances.
Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a handsome professional soccer player whose life spins into a downward spiral after some tragic accident that forces him to give up his lucrative career. Four years later, his sultry looks buried under a massive beard, Jose is slaving away as the head chef in his brother Manny's (Manny Perez) Mexican restaurant in New York. Manny is a tyrannical employer who runs his restaurant with an iron fist. When one of his waitresses, Nina (Tammy Blanchard), shows up late for the third time in two weeks, he promptly fires her. Worried about her, Jose walks out, leaving Manny to manage the busy kitchen by himself. After the unwed Nina reveals to Jose that she is pregnant, the two wander around New York for a while to let off their steam, visiting small shops and having lunch at a rival restaurant. At lunch, she rejects his paternalistic advice by telling him of her plans to have an abortion, as she is not prepared to devote her life to a child.
Returning to the restaurant to collect his cell phone, Jose gets into a heated argument with Manny that ends in Jose being fired. He then decides to take Nina to his parents' suburban home for dinner. There, she meets his loving mother and father (Angelica Aragon and Jaime Tirelli) and his younger brother (Ramon Rodriguez) who loves to show off his dance moves. Although the parents chide Jose for his disloyalty to Manny, the family dinner nonetheless becomes a comforting and intimate experience for everyone, providing Nina with the warmth and safety of a family environment for the first time since her childhood. She also discovers the troubled past that led Jose to turn his back on fame and success.
In his feature film debut, Mexican director Alejandro G. Monteverde fashions the movie like a modern-day fairy, and as such, there is a somewhat naïve idealism constantly lurking just beneath the surface. In the early New York scenes, Jose and Nina have an almost whimsical encounter with a blind peddler who gives Nina a piece of origami art in exchange for describing to him what is happening on the streets. In response to her rather bland and uninterested response, he cheerfully replies, "I wish I could see that." He has a sign that reads, "God closed my eyes, now I can see." The symbolism here is obvious and not especially penetrating. Later, in the family dinner scene, Monteverde fills the screen with rich, cultural beauty. His attempt to bring out the Latino culture in its unique heritage without resorting to the negative stereotyping that permeates mainstream Hollywood films is admirable. Unfortunately, the depiction is almost too perfect. Through all of their laughing and dancing and spicy cooking, the family is only a two-dimensional representation, a resilient structure of determination and support without depth of character.
At its worst, "Bella" falls into many of the overused indie film trappings that often seem artsy for the sake of being artsy. The film is structured in an unnecessarily complicated series of flashbacks and flash forwards that are frequently confusing and generally lessen the impact of the drama. Jose's secret tragedy is slowly unveiled through a series of flashbacks, but it is so predictable that by the time the film gets around to actually revealing it, the shock value and surprise are completely diminished. It would have been more effective for Monteverde to have shown the accident at the beginning, thereby allowing the viewers to take in the full impact of Jose's descent from the flashy athlete of the opening moments to the lost soul that we follow. What is essentially a very simple movie would certainly have benefited from a simpler directorial approach.
The saving graces of the film are the two central performances, particularly that of Tammy Blanchard. The leads are both attractive, but they spend the bulk of the film hidden under mocking façades—he under his heavy beard, she in her waitress uniform that resembles a stereotypical Mexican dress. Eduardo Verástegui appropriately underplays his role, exhibiting the vacant quality we can reasonably expect from a man overcome with guilt. Blanchard commands most of the attention, however. Her character is not easy to like, and the strength of her performance is that she allows her character to be distant and occasionally unpleasant. She is a welcome contrast to the overriding sentiment of the film and provides a realistic darkness to Monteverde's saccharine idealism. Because the main characters are grounded so fervently in reality and thus more relatable, the surrounding fairy tale mood is easier to swallow.
Lions Gate's DVD transfer is really first-rate. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. The image is very clear, with vibrant colors and excellent contrast. Black levels are rich. The film was shot on a low budget, and this is fairly obvious at times, but watching the film on DVD is a visual delight.
Audio is available in English 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. Due to the low budget and fairly simple nature of the film, the audio is not incredibly dynamic. The 5.1 mix sounds very good, with clear and audible dialogue. Background ambience is delivered well, as is the song score. English and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The first special feature on the disc is an audio commentary with director Monteverde. He provides an enjoyable track with details on the production and his inspirations. He never runs out of things to talk about, and the track is quite engaging.
Up next is a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with interviews with the director, cast, and other crew members. Overlap with the commentary is avoided by focusing more on the actors' input.
The next feature is a look at the film's journey of distribution with a series of featurettes that collectively add up to about 15 minutes. Various stages of the independent film's grassroots promotion are highlighted, including its premier and reception at the Toronto Film Festival, its sponsorship by Goya Foods (this featurette plays very much like an infomercial for Goya), and its victory at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.
This is followed by a three-minute feature on one of the film's songs, "En La Plantga De Tu Pies," by Alejandro Sanz. Though advertised as a music video, it is really more of an interview with the singer/songwriter with the song and clips from the film playing throughout.
Finally, a U.S. trailer and a Spanish-language TV spot (featuring singer Alejandro Sanz) are included. The last feature is a lengthy thank-you list acknowledging all of the individuals who contributed to the film.
With a title like "Bella," the Spanish word for beautiful, it is not surprising that this film aims so forcefully for the heart. It has its flaws, certainly, and Monteverde cannot quite escape some of the flashy clichés of independent cinema. But with two endearing performances at its heart, the film remains consistently watchable and touching. I have to admit that at the end of the day, this is an uplifting film that played my emotions in just the right way. Yes, it's manipulative and obvious at times, illogical and contrived at others. But it is also an irresistible confection of inspirational fluff that we all need a little of every now and then, and I can't fault it for that.