One of the things that held down Paul Haggis' Crash from having more widespread appeal in 2004 was the overwhelming strides it takes to be an emotional rollercoaster. The independent drama Bella, directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, is 2006's equivalent to Crash, only without the compelling interconnectivity. It's a beautifully shot and aptly acted tearjerker, but it also soars so over the top in scripting decisions and situational conflicts that it feels more like a soap opera instead of a delicate film about a powerful topic.
Bella captures New York City as it bustles and churns during one average day of the week. The focus lies on a family operated restaurant and its head chef, Jose (Eduardo Verastegui), as they prepare for a significant day that includes entertaining an important, sizeable party. Being the head chef underneath the management of his brother Manny (Manny Lopez) hasn't been his career all his life, though; at one point, he was a rising soccer star with a bright, fruitful future ahead of him. However, with the screeching of wheels and a blind look away from the road in a past accident, his life changed in a snap right before his eyes. The film's beginning moments introduce us to his persona before the accident, and then directly follow it with his beard-laden, melancholy disposition that follows after he adapts to the sadness of his mistake.
Jose's transformation isn't really the focus in Bella. Instead, it becomes more about the aftereffects of the accident on himself and upon his interactivity with the people around him, namely an attractive young waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard) who has let a recent discovery of her pregnancy affect her disparately underpaid working life at the restaurant. She becomes a cyclical element in the film, meaning she demonstrates the existence and creation of life in a network of individuals ravaged and altered forever by death. There's a wonderful moment where she scrounges through her purse and pockets to gather the money for a pregnancy test, only to find that she must plead with the cashier to front her the remaining money. Blanchard's expressions as she silently communicates with the teller illustrate some of the valid humanism and emotion behind Bella.
At its core, I like the ideas within Bella; as an evocative, thought-provoking exercise, it takes you into the mind of a man at the cusp of his downward spiral. It's only with some of the more sprawling anecdotes and secondary themes that the tone starts to drag. Bella congests its pensiveness and begins to spread itself outward as a critique on humanity, especially that which stirs within a kinetic environment like New York. Little things in the film, like a dispute between a convenience store clerk and a customer about the change owed to him, try to be a kind of dramatic insight into the human condition and the misconceptions that we have about people. Instead, they come across as forceful and non-directional endeavors set in motion to stir up little insightful sparks that travel from your gut to your brain for processing. Sadly, there's just not enough real meat behind these ideas to back up some of their outstretching efforts.
Thankfully, there's a lot of talent behind the points that Bella tries to make. Both Blanchard and Verastegui give their respective parts a load of clout, even giving the two some distinct sparks in places. They both captivate the screens with powerful, embittered glances, each to different degrees for different reasons, which really help the emotional structure of the film stay almost tangible. Where this foundation starts to crumble and shake a bit is with forced, indulgent dialogue engineered to make the audience feel, but not with heartfelt longevity in mind. During one conversation, Nina and Jose sit at a small table and discuss their issues, primarily hers, in such a disproportional, unreal level that they just seem rehearsed. If it weren't for the gallant performances from two talented and captivating actors, these moments would feel wasted. Instead, they're taken at face value with the pure enjoyment of their roles in our thoughts.
Maybe my apprehension towards Bella lies in the level of disbelief that this undeniably promising, potentially "real" yarn left me with. It offers the opportunity to tell a heartbreaking story with a unique, breathtaking climax, while also holding the tools to tell it beautifully in the angular and radiant cinematography from Andrew Cadelago and the smooth score from Stephan Altman. Instead, Bella falls short in selling the relationships and, in turn, really falls apart once the incongruent ending pops up. It's still a warm and gushy message drama with solid performances to back up its rhythmic sincerity, but it shies away from significance because of the watered-down context that lies underneath.
Lionsgate presents Bella in a standard keepcase presentation, adorned with a slipcase that replicates the cover and back art exactly on both sides.
Part of Bella's overall aura lies in its sumptuous visual design that comes hallmarked with stark colors and beautifully radiant lighting. This disc's 1.78:1 anamorphic image captures more than a respectable amount of this beauty. Colors are all aptly rich and solid, while the aliasing around the tall lines of New York stretching to the sky of reaching down into the subway station all hold their edges quite well. The level of detail and saturation as you follow Jose's brother through his morning trip through the kitchen is astounding. There's a faint veil of noise over the image, but that could also be mistaken for film grain. In short, this is a magnificent visual experience
Equally as velvety and strong is the Dolby 5.1 track, which features blends of Spanish and, primarily, English languages. Overall the level of clarity and multidirectional elements within this track I highly suitable for the film. What really stands out is how great the music sounded through the speakers, which adds a lot of spice and attitude to the movie. A 2.0 Stereo track is also available, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
Commentary with director Monteverde:
Monteverde doesn't waste a lick of time in his commentary in discussing the film. Everything gets face time, from the decisions he makes with his actors about their character's personalities to his experiences with working in difficult shooting locations, like the ungodly kitchen. He's a rapid-fire speaker, which is an awesome trait during this track because he almost never stops with his flow of material at the listener. He takes the time to describe working with his wife and the child actors in the film as well, both positive and negative, along with the rest of the tricky challenges behind the quick shooting schedule. There's a quote he uses that I really liked about when a script lives and dies, which really made his knowledge surface about film. I really enjoyed this track.
Behind The Scenes:
This 16-minute featurette features tons of natural interview time, shots behind the camera, as well as still shots featuring the assembling of the film. It features plenty of face time with Monteverde as he describes his decisions to make the film and his casting decisions. It also covers the family aspect addressed later in the film. There's a lot of character description that gets wedged in, which can get a little repetitive, but the musical accompaniment and speckles of insight that pour through with the actors make it completely worth the watch.
Behind the Journey of Distribution:
This 5-part segmented featurette that covers how Bella got picked up for distribution spans, in total, about 15 minutes. These points illustrate the public reception of the film, the lack of interest the film initially drummed up from stilted finaiciers, as well as footage from the Heartland film festival. Combined, these little pieces aren't a bad watch, but exist more as fond little memories for the filmmakers than descriptive supplements.
Also includes are a Trailer (anamorphic), a TV Spot (in Spanish), a Music Video featuring Alejandro Sanz, and a Thank You List for the film.
Bella's a film rich with message and culture which come across so effortlessly with its strong lead performances and wonderful score accompaniment. However, it's a bit difficult to dig through the overly purpose-driven dialogue and theme decisions to find these bits of brilliance. Still, Bella comes mildly recommended, mainly because the film gets a lot of radiance and strength formulated for nearly nothing in the budget column. It's a message film that means well and comes with beautiful image and sound qualities, so the disc itself comes Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site