“Put yourself in my shoes.” So says Nina, without enough hope to call it pleading, in a key scene in Bella.
One of the winsome things about Bella, Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s intimate, appealing feature debut, is that it listens to Nina instead of preaching — to her or to us.
Nina (Tammy Blanchard) works as a waitress with José (Eduardo Verastegui), the line chef, whose brother Manny (Manny Perez) owns the restaurant. Nina is in trouble, of a sort that many movies would be very vocal about what should happen — and why viewers who think otherwise are bad people.
José’s views aren’t hard to guess, but Nina doesn’t ask him for advice, and he offers none. Instead, he offers her what she really needs: understanding, compassion, support, and ultimately something much more.
Bolstered by engaging performances and an appealing Latin milieu, Bella tells a simple, idealistic story with considerable style and charm. Shot in just three weeks in New York City, the film unfolds largely over the course of a single day, interspersed with glimpses of past and future events in a way that allows viewers to discover for themselves the relationships between persons and events.
For instance, an early shot shows a bearded man sitting alone on a beach watching a young girl playing alone. Passers‑by observe the scene with concern, and the viewer may feel some apprehension. Later, though, the scene appears in a different light.
Bella opens and closes with scenes set at the seashore, with one other notable scene in the middle on the beach. The sea, incalculable and eternal, surrounds the city in which the story is set, unseen for the most part, but never entirely absent. A popular proverb, quoted in the opening moments of the film, sets the stage: “My grandmother always said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
José was once a rising star with the Real Madrid soccer club before his budding career took an unexpected turn. Nina, already struggling at work, discovers that she is faced with an unwanted pregnancy. When she arrives at work, Manny fires her for being late one too many times (and because he attributes previous performance problems to being hung over rather than to morning sickness).
When Nina — standing in a subway, speaking through steel bars like a prisoner — begins to open up to José, the solicitude with which he responds suggests an obvious explanation. Later, further revelations invite us to reevaluate the nature of his concern and support.
José and Nina are each, in their own way, damaged goods. Although José is ultra-simpatico, a dark side comes through occasionally, as when he deliberately holds his hand to the flame over the restaurant kitchen stove. The scruffy beard obscuring Verastegui’s heartthrob looks (the actor started in telenovelas, Mexican soap operas) is likewise a sort of stigma, a literal self-effacement related to a flashback in which his whole head is shaved. In another scene José inadvertently steps off a sidewalk into the path of an oncoming car. He’s distracted and upset, but not only by the events of the moment.
The screenplay, despite some missteps, is attentive to the realities of its characters’ lives. Autographing a battered old ball for young fans, rising star José takes the time to ask them where they play. In the street? What about cars? A bit later, when Nina goes to the drugstore to pick up a pregnancy test, she finds herself at the cash register without enough money to pay for it, and has to plead with the cashier to trust her to bring the money later.
Verastegui, last seen in Chasing Papi, has charisma and presence as the one-time soccer star. With his out-of-control beard, he oddly resembles Jim Caviezel’s Jesus. Blanchard shines in the most difficult role, vulnerable, winsome, bitter, wounded. Her monologue on the beach could have been distractingly talky, but the strength of her performance makes the scene a standout. Under Monteverde’s direction, some of the best moments are wordless, notably a wrenching point-of-view shot with a camera turned sideways, a low-key scene involving jostling elbows at a breakfast table and a luminously playful shot toward the very end.
Bella is at least the third film this year about a young woman dealing with an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy — and the second independent film about an unhappily pregnant waitress, after Adrienne Shelly’s problematic but heartfelt Waitress. (The same theme was also the premise for the raunchy comedy Knocked Up.)
Intriguingly, while none of these films is a polemic against abortion (although in Waitress Keri Russell does affirm her unborn baby’s “right to thrive”), to one degree or another a life-affirming or pro-life sensibility runs through each of them, even Knocked Up.
In fact, National Post columnist Chris Knight wrote a grumpy column complaining that abortion wasn’t more seriously considered in the two earlier films. Will Knight be more appeased by Bella, in which the prospect of abortion is considered at greater length? Or is does he really want to see movies with characters that make one particular choice?
Like the earlier films, Bella is not about the pro-life and pro-abortion “positions,” movements or causes, nor does it address the question of laws permitting or outlawing abortion. It is a drama about specific characters, relationships, events and decisions; broader issues are present only implicitly. José is Catholic, and his family, highlighted in a delightful domestic sequence, seems to take their faith seriously. José is clearly troubled by Nina’s decision — but he shows his commitment to life not in word, but in touching and heroic deed.
From a pro-choice perspective, Nina has all the reasons in the world to want an abortion. She rattles off a litany of them to José over lunch. They are understandable reasons. Over against this, Bella ultimately interposes, not more words or arguments, but a moment of revelation — a transcendent affirmation of life in its incalculable value.
In the end, Bella has something to challenge everyone, pro-life or otherwise. For pro-lifers, the inspiring ending represents a call to love of neighbor. It isn’t enough just to oppose abortion: We are called to love those in need with the love of Christ, potentially at a cost to ourselves. For those who favor abortion, the ending represents a challenge to recognize that life is a beautiful and precious gift even in far from ideal circumstances, and the choice to embrace life, even when it involves great sacrifice, is also beautiful.
Yet it’s right around this point that Juno, which has been clever and insightful, unexpectedly reveals hidden layers of complexity and depth.
For Verástegui — a former boy-band and telenovela heartthrob known to Latino fans as “the Mexican Brad Pitt” — the mission is simple. “Hollywood doesn’t belong to the studios,” he recently told Decent Films. “Hollywood belongs to God. And we need to take it back. And that’s what I’m trying to do, by example first, trying my best every day to be involved in projects that will inspire people to use their talents to do something positive for the world.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.