Independent films are used to a small focus, and “Bella,” the story of a line cook and a waitress, is no exception. The film is indie through-and-through, but is somehow sweet by not coming on too strong, and powerful by letting the audience decide for themselves what they will feel. The film works by exploring themes we all understand, and by showing parts of life (even amidst the chaos of New York City), that we are not used to seeing. That it works is a testament to its charm, and a well-crafted script by Alejandro Monteverde (who also directs the film), and wonderful acting by all involved. “Bella” feels like a long-weekend film but takes place in only one day.
“Bella” is told through present day events and flashbacks, all used effectively to tell the story. It opens with a well-dressed Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) dancing with a little girl in a Spanish neighborhood of NYC, only to cut to the same man cooking at a restaurant, unshaven, sporting a beard more apt for a woodsman than a NYC urbanite. Jose once had a contract to play soccer with Club Madrid, and is now a cook. “Bella” is slow to pick away at why this is; we only know Jose through his actions, actions that are further defined when he walks out of the restaurant, owned by his brother Manny (Manny Perez), after Nina (Tammy Blanchard) is fired from the restaurant for being late.
For their right, Verástegui and Blanchard are wonderful, creating a chemistry that feels natural and authentic. What works about “Bella” is that it doesn’t seem to care about its characters’ story, but their feelings. Both Jose and Nina have demons that they are running from, demons they find the courage to face over the course of an afternoon in New York. We find out some additional exposition along the way, such as the fact that Nina is pregnant, and is inclined towards abortion under the burden of the impending responsibility of a child. Jose is reeling from a different burden, the reason for his denunciation of soccer, and while the event is laid out in the course of the movie will not even be hinted at here.
What works about “Bella” is the smooth collision between Jose’s cultural-rich bond between he and his Spanish family, and the solitude and isolation Nina has felt her whole life. In a series of events that include Jose speaking to his brother, Manny, about the real reason Nina was late, to a family dinner at his father and mother’s house that is filled with an amount of love Nina has never experienced, the film shows if deftness at stirring emotion in the right places. “Did you always grow up with that much love? That much joy?” Nina asks. “That’s nothing,” Jose narrates, explaining how festive family reunions can become. The film doesn’t focus on the divide between these two cultures, but what they have in common. Nina isn’t the only one to face her demons at Jose’s house; Jose does too, in ways that are understandable and endearing. This is where the movie shines – not in passing judgments or with detailed plots, but in showing how Nina and Jose’s friendship helps them both grow and heal.
The film has capable acting all around, most notably Verástegui, Blanchard, and Manny (who plays a tough-nosed boss, while at the same time hinting at a deep family connection with Jose the film only touches upon briefly). Additionally, Jose’s mother and father (Angélica Aragón and Jamie Tirelli) turn in warm performances, as does Jose’s younger brother Ramon Rodriguez. The film is also helped by the fact that most of the family scenes are simulcast in English and Spanish, where many viewers will have to rely on subtitles to get through some dialogue. However, the effect works to immerse viewers, as Nina, completely in the proceedings. It’s hard to watch “Bella” and not feel part of its Spanish family.
While “Bella” does come full circle, its characters learning important lessons along the way, to hint at the ending of the film is to do it a disservice. It certainly flies in the face of convention slightly, never for one second pretending to be a romantic drama while possibly offering a hope that Hollywood romances are often ill-suited to deliver. The film is shot nicely, easy on the eyes, and stays with you after the credits role. The movie concludes on a beach, Rachael Yamagata’s “Meet Me on the Water” playing into the surf. For a movie that takes place in a metropolis, “Bella” captures the motion of the city but the comfort of home. It’s greatest achievement is that it feels effortless.
– by Mark Ziobro