"Bella" reaches out to the audience for compassion, displaying drama of an unwieldy mournful pitch, calculated to tug down hard on heartstrings and beat tears out of the viewer. It's an indie production marinated in manipulation, but there's just enough authentic anguish emanating from the actors to make it worth a sit.
Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) is a former soccer star who has fallen into a dark pit of guilt after tragedy robbed him of a bright future. Now a chef for his tightly-wound brother, Jose befriends Nina (Tammy Blanchard, "Life with Judy Garland"), a waitress recently fired from the restaurant, now forced to deal with her new pregnancy with no financial support. Taking the day off to help her cope, Jose and Nina explore New York City together, eventually heading into the suburbs to meet Jose's family. During their time together, the friends begin to open up about their fears, with Jose comforting Nina, trying to heal his old wounds by reassuring Nina that her future isn't as bleak as she imagines.
The direction of "Bella," by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, is a series of close-ups, setting a mood of intimacy, often where it shouldn't exist. Trying to bond the audience with the characters, Monteverde all too often presses the drama harshly to the screen, trying to sneak around an organic growth of character while looking to cover his low budget. I kept hoping "Bella" would back off a little and let the whole enterprise breathe, for underneath the straining camerawork is an agreeable picture about bonding and hope.
If the unlikely union between Jose and Nina is sold appropriately at all, it's not due to the director's efforts. Blanchard and Verastegui are the stars of the show here, and their interplay of trust and light flirtation is what keeps "Bella" out of the death grip of convention. The actors feel every emotion required, leading to terrific scenes where the duo stew in their own remorse. Blanchard seems especially skilled at conveying the weight of the world, embodying a tough New Yorker without chasing her tail, developing Nina as a woman stuck between the life she wants for herself and the claustrophobic one she's stumbled into. These are two wonderful performances.
While "Bella" oddly contorts itself to follow a plot of complete inconsequence, it's more alive as a character drama, just observing Jose and Nina as they process their bundle of troubles. "Bella" is a modest effort, and expectations should be lowered to best appreciate the heartache.
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