There are moments in life that change everything. They are hinges, turning us toward perhaps toward joy, perhaps toward sorrow, but ensuring that nothing will ever be the same again. A rich new drama from producer Alejandro Monteverde, Bella, covers two such moments in the life of Jose (Eduardo Verastegui).
At the start of the film, Jose serves as a chef in his brother’s Mexican restaurant in New York. He hides behind a thick beard and mourns the sudden event that halted his life of promise as an international soccer star. There is hope in the ashes, however. Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a troubled waitress, provides Jose an opportunity for a new hinge, a new moment to set his life on a different track. The film follows Jose and Nina over a single weekend as they connect to each other and search for the best path for each of their lives. Neither can go back. The question is: How they will move forward?
Bella, a shoestring production that was quite literally filmed out of the trunk of Monteverde’s car, won the People’s Choice Award at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, as well as a host of other awards. It’s not surprising. There’s a lot to love about the movie.
The story of Jose and Nina happens against a backdrop of Jose’s warm, middle-class, Latin immigrant family. Nina, a pregnant Caucasian woman alone in the world, crosses a metaphorical border into a world of salsa dancing, spicy food, and Spanish speakers. There is a warmth, intimacy, and humor in the family that transcends the culture barrier. They have the same magical qualities as a happy, connected family in Hoboken or Prague or New Delhi. Blanchard portrays Nina with a compelling mix of toughness, clarity, and vulnerability. To her, the love is as foreign as the language.
The best part of the movie, however, is Jose. Eduardo Verastegui, a Latin-American heartthrob often called the Brad Pitt of Mexico, deliberately chose the role because he was tired of playing banditos and Latin lovers. He wanted to play a hero; not a fantasy superhero, but a real man who cares for and sacrifices for those around him. Like the character he portrays, Verastegui displays his own heroism in opting for a movie with such noble ideals, even going so far as to ugly up his chiseled face, no easy task, to portray a man consumed by sorrow.
In spite his own tragedy, or perhaps because of it, Jose truly sees Nina when no one else does. He cares enough to notice the signs of her distress, and then chooses to involve himself in the troubles of a coworker he barely knows. It’s a big task, embodying a hero, and in the hands of a different actor and producer, it might have swung toward cheesy melodrama. The film, for the most part, resists the urge to oversell. Jose’s haunted heart, and his underlying decency, are entirely believable.
The pregnancy is an important factor in Nina’s crossroads. The film handles both Nina and the life inside her with honor, refusing to minimize the gravity of Nina’s fear or the value of the child. We watch Nina be torn by incompatible desires and fears, wavering between decisions she doesn’t want to make. She is alternately rational, irrational, resigned, and undecided. Jose stands beside her through the entire journey, affirming the life of both mother and child.
In the end, the choices that Nina and Jose make affect each other. Their moments of destiny merge, giving them both a chance to be redeemed. Bella is one of the best movies to come along in years. It offers hope that those pivotal moments, met with courage and compassion, can lead to the kind of joy that changes everything. – Rebecca Cusey is a writer in Washington, DC.