Bella (2006)
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Bella (2006)

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There is a very fine line in movies between a drama and a melodrama. Both rely on reaching the emotions of the audience but the melodrama tends to do so in an over the top fashion. The film ‘Bella’ treads this line but just barely manages to keep on the drama side of it. ‘Bella’ does have moments where it tries too hard to tug at the heart strings and it is during those moments that it seems more like a ‘Lifetime’ afternoon flick than a serious theatrical release. While there are some technical flaws with this movie it remains a solid piece of entertainment. It does push an agenda that is currently dividing the country so the appreciation of this film may be clouded by the position it takes rather than just the cinematic merits of it possesses. In many ways the message cannot be separated from the media especial in a movie like this. Even if you support the position not taken here credit most be given to the presentation. With the exception of the times it flirts with going over the top this is a very well constructed film with amazing talent on both sides of the camera. It was the darling of the independent film circuit in 206 and now is available on DVD care of the folks over at Lion’s Gate. This film is worth watching no matter what your views on the topics covered happen to be.

The script was written by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Patrick Million and Leo Severino. This is the first time for all three but if this film is any indication of their writing talents there are many more successful films in their future. The story is concerned with a young woman, Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who is pregnant. She is unprepared for a baby and is considering not taking the pregnancy to term. She meets a young man, Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) and in the course of a day the two reconsider their respective lives. Among the themes presented in this film are, of course, the most obvious, the right to life versus the pro choice options. The treatment of this aspect of the story is not in such a way as to hit you over the head. It is gently and naturally presented. In some ways the film reminded my of Hal Hartley’s break out Indy hit, ‘Trust’ which also looked a pregnant girl and a dysfunctional man over the course of a day. Naturally some comparisons will be made to the smash Indy success story, Juno. The two films are completely different and any attempts at such a comparison will have to be limited to the fact that both young women are pregnant and unwed. There is a certain pathos here that is endearing. The plights of the young people here are offered up in such a fashion that it is impossible not to strike an emotional chord in the audience. The writing team here weaves a tapestry of several disconnected stories that come together because of how this pair is tossed together. Nina does make a decision here but this is a story more about a single character than a banner in the abortion debate. It does offer a specific point of view which is part of making a film.

This is also the first time Monteverde has directed a feature length film. He has a couple of shorts to his credit but nothing approaching the scope of this endeavor. He style is very much in the minimalist school. he uses the camera as a voyeur; not taking part in the situations merely displaying them for the audience. There are no camera tricks here; no fancy lighting or special effects. The story is what matters and that is what Modnteverde provides. With a film like this that depends on the development of the characters the use of film school techniques only distracts from the story. Modnteverde has the good sense to sit back and let the actors tell the story. This is a film that is about the development of the characters not a vanity piece to show how cleaver the director is. I will take a talented, self assured director over a cleaver one any day and this film demonstrates why. Normally a story set in one day the events would seem unnaturally rushed. Modnteverde avoids this with skill through the judicious use of flashback and flashforward scenes. This places the main events in the continuity of the lives of Jose and Nina.

At one time Jose was on his way to becoming the star soccer player for his homeland of Mexico. Just before he had his chance to reach his stardom some unforeseen events disgraces him. He winds up working for his brother who runs a Mexican restaurant in New York City. As the film starts he is on a beach watching life go by; the couples, the children at play and the seagulls. In a flashback he recalls the glory days when he had money and the adoration of so many. Back in the present he works as a cook, his face hidden by a full beard. His brother, Manny (Manny Perez) is more than a little uptight. He is demanding, unrelenting and intolerant of anything below his standards. Nina is late for work, again. She has been sick in the mornings and on this particular day stops off at the drug store to get a home pregnancy test. Nina doesn’t even have enough money to pay for the test but the cashier lets her take it on the promise that she will return with the money. Nina needs to know whether she is pregnant before she can focus on her shift. Manny is in no mood for any excuse, he fires her for lateness on the spot. Jose comes out from back to outside the restaurant and witnesses how dismissive and cruel his brother is towards Nina. Jose doesn’t even remove his chef’s coat and hat but follows Nina down into the subway. Just before she enters the turnstile Jose calls to her. She had dropped the stuffed bear that was part of what was in her locker and Jose returns it to her. This is the beginning of a different kind of relationship. It is not love but it’s not quite the usual kind of friendship. It is more two people in a bad place in life that just need someone to listen and talk. As the film continues the audience gets to see what lead to this day and a little glimpse at what will follow.

This is what reminded me of the film ‘Trust’. It is two people that would normally not be in the same social circles clinging to each other for some small measure of stability in life. Jose has watched as his own life took an unexpected twist and seems to need to empathize with Nina to make sense of things. Nina has just had her world turned upside down and apparently sense that Jose is a kindred spirit. This film explores one of those little days where we are forced to reevaluate our lives and what our future may hold. The issue of whether to have an abortion comes up but it is almost a MacGuffin, something more important to the characters than the audience. I say this because it is the turning point in Jose and Nina’s life that is the important theme depicted here. The bottom line of the film can be summarized by a lyric in an old ‘John Lennon song; ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. This is the sentiment that bonds these two very different people together.

When a strong script and excellent direction is joined with an incredible cast there is a special synergy. This is the case here. Blanchard is remarkable in this film. She has a gentle determination that carries the movie. Some may recognize her from the 2007 remake of ‘Sybil’. While Ms. Blanchard did not reach the heights set by Sally Fields she came very close. This is a feat that demonstrates this woman’s talent. She is beautiful in that non-flashy way that is perfect for this role. She has a command of her character that will certainly take her far. In counterpoint to her performance is that of Mr. Verástegui. He does get most of the lines that border on the melodramatic but has the ability to reign things in before they go over the top. He has a rugged, handsome look combined with a sensitivity that works very well in this part.

This is a beautifully photographed film thanks to the efforts and talent of cinematographer Andrew Cadelago. He captures the emotional impact of the movie with his gentle photography. Lion’s Gate has a lot of these little Indy gems. If you haven’t gotten familiar with their catalog this is the right film to start. It will be debated and discussed but ultimately it is here to enjoy and appreciate.

Posted 03/30/08

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