Bella (2008) dir. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
Starring:Eduardo Verástegui, Tammy Blanchard, Manny Perez
"Bella" won the Audience Award at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival - a prestigious award won by great films such as "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" and "Eastern Promises". But it's almost two years later and the film finally gets a theatrical release. The film, a slice of life drama of a Mexican-American chef and his relationship with a pregnant waitress in NY, turns out to be a boring exercise in heart-string pulling with surprisingly clumsy storytelling.
The film opens with a flashback. Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a handsome soccer player about to sign a deal which would see him playing for Madrid in La Liga, the Spanish Football League. The film cuts to present day and we see the same man looking completely different - he's grown a giant unruly beard and unkempt hair and works as a chef in his brother's Mexican restaurant. The other protagonist is Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who works as a waitress in the restaurant. We see Nina testing positive for a pregnancy test - a result which causes her much distress. When Manny humiliates and fires Nina for showing up late Jose is compelled to leave his post and follow her. Over the course of the day they develop a relationship and find a common solution to both their problems.
Despite good production value including sharp and beautiful New York City photography, the film is clumsy in it's storytelling. Writers Monteverde and Patrick Million have difficulty establishing the world and tone of the film. In the opening scene, by Jose's outfit and his antique car, it would appear to take place in the 1950's. But when we cut to the present, it's the 2000's. Also, Jose is supposed to be a great soccer player whose dream crashes after a tragic car accident. On a couple of occasions an exhibition soccer match between Mexico and the U.S. is referenced which piques Jose's interest, but this plot thread goes nowhere.
The main throughline of the film is the relationship between Nina and Jose. By how their first meeting plays out in the subway I assumed Jose to be the father of the child. I was wrong. So why does Jose chase after Nina? I assumed there was an inate attraction that draws him to her. I was wrong. Bella is so unfulfilling because it purposely avoids these conventions. And 'convention' is not a dirty word here. A film like this needs to work with conventions.
But what confused me the most - and I feel bad to critique the film on a point so banal - is Jose's beard. It's so big and overgrown he looks like an Islamic fundamentalist. In fact, considering the story takes place in New York, I first assumed there would be a 9/11/terrorism theme to the film. But no, his beard is never mentioned or acknowledged except a casual reference by his father. Jose's beard is the elephant in the room during the entire film. It's out of character because Jose, sans beard, is actually so handsome he could be a runway model. There are more subtle ways to portray a character's subconscious hidden demons, and hiding his face beneath such overgrowth is simply ridiculous and distracting.
The final moments in the film climax with an implausible 'twist' which unnecessarily raises more questions than it answers. Maybe I'm just cynical, but it's the final straw in a film that never ever gets it right.