Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s success with Babel in 2006 overshadowed the remarkable debut of his countrymen Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, who wasn’t even 30 when he released Bella, a New York drama about a chef who helps a maid overcome a crisis of consciousness. The movie won all the awards it was nominated for (but didn’t make it to the Oscar race) and it earned, with a budget of $3.3 million dollars, more than $10 million in the USA, making it one of the highest-grossing independent films of the year. Then it kind of disappeared. With Kaleidoscope Entertainment releasing a new DVD February 7 hopefully Bella will receive some well-deserved attention again.
José (Eduardo Verástegui), a chef working in his brother Manny’s restaurant abandons his post during the noon rush when Manny (Manny Perez) fires the maid Nina (Tammy Blanchard) for being late too many times. Nina doesn’t even have a chance to explain that she’s found out she’s pregnant; the entrepreneurial Manny, more obsessed with the appearance of his thriving restaurant than with the problems of his staff, can’t care less. And José, in a spontaneous act of compassion, leaves with her.
Walking rather aimlessly through the streets of New York, the two open their hearts to each other and talk about their personal problems. Nina isn’t ready to be a mother, and now that she’s jobless she’s even less thrilled about it. She’s a single, the father doesn’t care about her, she doesn’t want her child to grow fatherless like she did and she doesn’t have anyone to help her. Under the circumstances, an abortion seems logical.
José has his own demons to talk about. A former soccer player – he is Mexican after all – he was on the road to success when in a car accident he ran over a little girl, killing her and his joy for soccer and life in general along with her. Now hiding under a beard that makes him look like a hobo (or Christ, take your pick), José spends his insignificant life cooking for his brother’s restaurant.
José takes the distressed Nina to his parents’ house, where Nina gets some much needed love from a surrogate family. Family is an important thing in the movie. Nina has no one, whereas José, in spite of his tragedy, has his parents and brothers, even if they argue like families do, to rely on.
The movie deals a great deal with the question of whether or not to abort, and I find the treatment of each side of the argument reasonable. On the one hand I can understand that José, the Christic figure, is on the side of life, anxious to redeem himself for the life he took away, and if he can convince Nina to have her child, he may exorcise his demons. Nina, on the other hand, a single mom without a job and incapable of trusting people, can’t imagine having a child if she can’t offer her a happy life. And in her present situation, she has little means to do so.
I’ve read a few reviews attacking this movie for its pro-life, Christian themes. I’m no religious sympathiser or expert, but when did defending life become an exclusive Christian matter and not just common decency? Some in the left see this movie just as right wing propaganda against pro-choice. Now I’m quite sure of my position about abortion, which is that women should do whatever they want with their bodies. However I appreciated the balanced discussion José and Nina have about this. Abortion isn’t just a moral or religious matter, but also social and economical, and the movie explores the movie from all those angles to show the difficulty of arriving at a decision.
If I can say something about Bella is that it has gravitas. The characters seem weighed down by their problems, burdened by their moral crises. The movie doesn’t deny the right to choice, but it shows how arriving at a decision should involves intellectual and emotional effort.
José favours adoption, which is perhaps a more humane solution. But even so we can put ourselves in Nina’s shoes and ask: everyone I’ve know has been unfair to me, betrayed me or walked out of my life; love is a rare thing; why should I trust a child, who I may or may not love, with strangers who may treat it the way I was treated?
These are just some of the difficult questions the movie urges us to consider. And yet the movie is uplifting. Unlike other independent movies, Bella doesn’t wallow in cynicism or bleakness. The movie displays its indie status in other ways: its candid discussion of mature themes, a focus on characterisation and dialogue, and an attention to realistic situations.
I couldn’t end this review without praising the movie’s depiction of New York. Now how many movies have you seen where someone actually swipes a MetroCard through a subway turnstile? Where someone casually buys clothes in street tents? Where subway entertainers play music? Where a blind man sells paper flowers? Those tired of Hollywood’s Big Apple as a mere agglomeration of tall buildings and busy streets (so generic that Toronto often doubles for it) will delight in this New York that contains a personality, colours and shapes seldom seen in modern movies, but which hearkens back to early Spike Lee (Do The Right Thing) or ‘70s movies like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123.
This new release contains an audio commentary with Alejandro Monteverde and some features about the creation of Bella. Monteverde’s passion for cinema led to him create his own film company with Verástegui, Metanoia, and to sleep in his friend actor’s apartment to save money for this film. The sacrifices paid off with an intelligent, provocative and well-acted drama.
Director: Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
Screenplay: Alejandro Gomes Monteverde, Patrick Million, Leo Severino
Cast: Eduardo Verástegui, Tammy Blanchard, Manny Perez, Jaime Tirelli, Angélica Aragón
Runtime: 91 min