Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bella -- Life-changing moments

Bella is a beautiful film, a surprise hit of 2007. Defying genre definition, it is a true love story without the romance. It is a comedy without the hilarity. It is a drama with little action. Poignant and sensitive, it is a simple but profound life-affirming movie, a character-based story of two people who find redemption in the midst of pain and suffering.

Set in New York City, Nina is a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. When she turns up late for work for the third time, Manny, the owner fires her. Jose, the head chef and Manny's brother sees something in her, and leaves his station in the kitchen to comfort her. He senses she needs someone to talk to. As he picks up her dropped and forgotten teddy bear and runs after her, little does he know he is setting out on a journey of rediscovery, and both will do some soul-searching on the way.

Like Juno, early in Bella Nina buys a pregnancy test kit. Unlike Juno, there is no flip patter from the convenience store owner. This is New York, a cynical city to the core. When the news is positive, or from her perspective bad, the reason for her lateness is clear. She is not hungover, she has morning sickness. With no job and a bun in the oven to boot, she is facing a dilemma. Where Juno plays out the whole pregnancy over the course of the seasons, Bella takes place in one single day.

Bella was produced by Metanoia Productions. Metanoia is the Greek word for repentance, and this production company is a Christian film-making business intent on making inspirational, hope-instilling movies. Writer-director Alejandro Monteverde developed the idea for this film on his drive to Hollywood, then spent about a year putting the finishing touches on the script before showing it to friend and star Eduardo Verástegui. It was clearly a period of slow cooking to produce a winning recipe.

Putting Verástegui in the lead role was a great decision. A star and heart-throb in his native Mexico, and familiar to some US viewers for his role in Chasing Papi, he, too, had a life-changing experience. When he became a Christian he decided to become a monk or a missionary. But a priest in the monastery persuaded him to use his talents for God in making positive-focused films. And it has paid off. He has excellent talent, and is believable here against other lead Tammy Blanchard as Nina. Together, they bring a level of emotion to the screen that captures the heart of this movie.

A crucial scene occurs when Jose brings Nina to his family home at the beach. There they spend some time doing simple things. They plant trees with his Spanish-speaking dad, and afterwards Jose shows her his classic car, hidden away in the garage gathering dust. As they sit in this convertible beauty, she asks when he last drove it, unknowingly triggering painful unspoken memories. He opens up a secret compartment; a secret that changed his life is told, his soul is bared.

Revealing a secret and looking back on a decision that changed a life has a way of bringing it home again. But in the retelling there is often a cleansing, a catharsis. In Bella, Jose breaks down in his mama's arms, crying till he can cry no more. He who has been hiding in Manny's kitchen behind a huge beard, has chosen to emerge. Like a fragile butterfly emerging from its cocoon to face life, so Jose is finally ready to face life again. Sometimes it is necessary to face our demons, to release our secrets and in so doing their power over us is broken.

Jose's family is a wonderful Latin family. As they are preparing a fantastic feast to meet his younger brother's girlfriend, the house is filled with marimba music, and the fragrances of Mexican cooking. Joy and love are old friends here. And then at the dinner, more secrets are revealed, secrets that open other ways of thinking.

One day in New York changes the lives of the three main characters. As a chef, Jose can see the lives of his fellow cooks, and workers. He has a caring heart, but a broken spirit. His brother Manny (Manny Perez) runs the restaurant like a general, with his clipped mustache and tailored suit. He knows if his workers are 20 minutes late but not how many kids they have. And all he cares about is the money. He has a business, not a life. Meanwhile Nina has a cynicism and mistrust that permeates her being. But as Jose restores Nina's trust in humanity, so she restores his passion in life. And as he experiences life again, he shows Manny that there is more than business, there is family and relationships.

At the very start of the film, as the waves wash against the shoreline, Jose narrates the line, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." We all make plans, thinking we are in control, thinking we know where we are going. But it is illusory. Like Jose and Nina, sooner or later we will face an irreversible moment that will change our lives forever. It has or it will. Will we be ready? Do we know what is really important in life? Have we found the joy and love that family and relationships bring? Before telling God your plans, remember Bella. Remember that life is all about the little things, the moments that matter, the choices that define a character.

As Bella closes with a tear-jerking ending, it leaves the viewer filled with emotion. A little movie with largely unknown actors, it is all heart. And it succeeds in its intent -- of lighting a candle in the heart of the viewer.

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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