Alejandro Gomez Monteverde

February 21st, 2008 Film, Personalities, Xpress

Could Alejandro Gomez Monteverde join such big names from south of the US border as Del Toro, Innaratu and Cauron? And if he can, what’s he doing in New York?

Latinos in New York City are almost a cliché. You’d think one of the promising new breed of Mexican directors would avoid such stereotypes, but it’s not until you see Bella that you realise Monteverde has injected a unique freshness into a very tired set of characters and circumstances. Long the invisible janitors, cleaners, waiters and servants of the uberclass in the Big Apple, it’s just that ethnic subculture Monteverde subverts with his saccharine-free love story.

“I was 20 the first time I went to New York and I remember being overwhelmed,” he explains to Xpress. “New York is like a living clock. I thought ‘what if I was dying right now?’ If there was a big tragedy going on in your life and you were standing right there, life would go on without you because it’s such a busy city.” But it wasn’t just the busyness that comes under Monteverde’s keen observation. For an outsider, he has a fresh and at times beautiful take on the city itself.

Monteverde uses the at-times bizarre idiosyncrasies of New York itself to tell his story, and for a town we’ve seen in a million movies where everything from giant marshmallow men to fundamentalist nutjobs have left their mark, Monteverde shows us a quiet, human, quirky side we’ve not seen before. Despite a nightmarish shoot where the budget didn’t allow for nearly the number of locations he envisioned, he captures the spirit of New York’s human melting pot beautifully, and not just in main characters Jose and Nina. “To me, New York City became a character,” he says.

Then there’s the other subversion of an old cliché. We’ve all seen Matthew McConaghuey, Kate Hudson, Owen Wilson and Sarah Jessica Parker fall in love in New York and many of us have swooned at it. How about a love story where there isn’t a single Milano Blahnik, kiss under the miseltoe at the Rockefeller Centre or comic case of mistaken identity?

“The whole purpose of the film was to tell a love story but that love story wouldn’t be about romance,” Monteverde says, explaining the absence of stolen kisses, racing heartbeats and furtive hand holds you expect. “I wanted to break all those kinds of stereotypes of romance movies. At the end of the film, it’s up to the audience to decide if [Jose and Nina] are going to get married or fall in love or not. When I was writing the script I didn’t want to put any romance into it. I thought that would be the easy way out and I wanted to do it the hard way — a love story between a man and a woman that you don’t see in a romantic way.”

Bella is a languid, soft-hearted and unsentimental drama about frightened, damaged people connecting in a world where most human activity is the constant blur of strangers passing, and to watch it, you’d think Monteverde, his actors and his crew started each morning with shared meditation and affirmations of love.

Instead, he describes Apocalypse Now-like level of stress and pressure. “Everyone told me it was impossible, that I wouldn’t have enough money to shoot the film. They said ‘you’re making the biggest mistake of your life’,” Monteverde recalls. “And unfortunately they were right. Every day was crazy, Even though it was my first feature I’ve done a lot of shorts and it was the hardest film I’ve ever done in my life. It was very intense and I like to think it was worth it because I lost ten years of my life.

“We prepped for a couple of weeks and then we shot the whole film in 23 days. Every day I thought we weren’t going to finish, everything that could go wrong went wrong. I was doing one take per scene, it was really fast and very frustrating. Every day I’d come back to my room and ask myself why I didn’t listen to the people who told me I couldn’t do it. It was like going to war and not having enough weapons to fight these people.

“But I knew that I had to shoot in New York and I knew it was going to be a challenge. At the end it paid off because I stayed true to the story and I was true to the story. I didn’t compromise. So it was a very difficult shoot, but at the end I don’t regret the difficulty.”

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