"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 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.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), the "Bella" visual experience is marked by strong colors and nice image detail. This is low-budget photography, but it looks respectable on this DVD, with superior black levels and contained flesh tones.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix has humble intentions to match the film, but dialogue is presented clearly and the occasionally lively soundtrack offers satisfactory depth to the presentation. A 2.0 mix is also available on the DVD.
English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
A feature-length audio commentary by writer/director Alejandro Monteverde benefits from the filmmaker's enthusiasm for the project. Monteverde is filled with information on production struggles and creative choices, including shooting the entire film hand-held; the fury of shooting the picture in 24 days; the surprise appearance of fertility symbols; the importance of strong Latino images; and the hazards that come when working with a temperamental child.
Monteverde is a charming fellow, and provides a worthwhile chat.
"'Bella:' Behind the Scenes" (16 minutes) traces the origins of the story and production, interviewing cast and crew, who walk the viewer through the artistic process. It's an emotional movie, so the comments offered are passionate and quite convincing (Blanchard cries at one point). Film clips are scattered throughout along with BTS footage.
"Behind the Journey of Distribution" is broken down into five featurettes (totaling 15 minutes) and discusses the challenges the producers of "Bella" faced trying to find suitable circulation for their movie. Even after winning an audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, it seems nobody wanted to take "Bella" on, and these very brief featurettes explore the bumpy road the picture took before theatrical release. Overall, it's all extremely self-congratulatory and emphasizes the "Latino = Proud" mantra the filmmakers are always quick to share.
A Theatrical Trailer and Television Spot are included.
A "Thank You List" (2 minutes) is offered.
"Bella's Music Video" (3 minutes) interviews Alejandro Sanz about his musical contribution to the soundtrack.
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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