Bella

February 21st, 2008 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

The whole of Bella is a memoir. We meet Jose (Vergástegui) on a beach looking at a little girl, a mixture of love and pain in his eyes. He’s heavily bearded, tall and Mexican, so everyone else is wary of him, turning their own children from his gaze. Is Bella going to be a statement about the racism entrenched in many western societies? Paedophilia? Or worse? None of the above. It’s a love story, and it succeeds in being both raw and beautiful. Jose is a chef in a New York City restaurant run by his highly-strung brother, and he has A Past that’s only hinted at during flashbacks of him younger, happier and on the brink of great things as a rising soccer star.

Another woman with a more mundane past, Nina, is a waitress as the restaurant. After realising she’s pregnant and coming to work late for the third day running, restaurantuer Manny (Perez) fires her on the spot. A distraught Nina pleads and cries, but is forced off into the jobless wilderness with a baby on the way. Jose sees what’s gone on and leaves his post in the middle of a big day for the restaurant to follow Nina, seeing how upset she is.

Jose gradually talks his way into Nina’s good graces against her better judgment and offers the ear of friendship so he can at least help her feel better. She tells him about her pregnancy and her intentions to abort the baby, and he doesn’t argue or try to talk her out of it, but takes her all over lesser New York to try to take her mind off it. They visit his sprawling, loving family where they help with the garden and take part in the family feast, then go to the beach at midnight by the light of paper lanterns, all the while relaxing to each other and just taking a breather.

Some things work about Bella, some things don’t, sometimes both at once. Entire sequences seem redundant, such as the banquet with Jose’s family, which serves no purpose but to show guilty overworked white people what they miss out on when so many of the world’s cultures are so family-oriented. On the other hand it shows Nina what she’s potentially giving up by killing her unborn child. Throughout a good deal of the movie, the two characters don’t really solve or fix anything in the traditional narrative sense, but their time together is easygoing, sweet and mutually supportive. The plot meanders through a few major set pieces rather than laying everything out as a classic case of cause and effect.

There’s a lot of flashback and even flash forward to imagined futures that don’t happen. Monteverde plays fast and loose with narrative structure, spinning the mysteries out to the final frames. You’ll be worried there’ll be no point when it’s over, but everything that happens has a strong reason for being there when we discover the traumatic incident that scarred Jose and the reason he’s investing so much trust and support in Nina. There’s a strange and seemingly huge gap in the story that isn’t explained as the last heartstring-tugging scene plays out and you might be one of the minority who want to know where Nina’s been for the batter part of half a decade, but if Bella’s charms have worked on you thus far you might not mind so much.

Of particular note is Monteverde’s unique grasp of the city of New York. Despite being a Mexican, he manages to captures the loud, obnoxious spirit of the place complete with the nuggets of surprising beauty and quiet wisdom to be found In its many corners. It’s a little hard trying to work out what Bella wants to be, but there’s enough for you to take away with you.


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