October 23, 2007


"Bella" is a masterpiece of the heart. It is imagining what life could be like if we allowed life to tell us something, tell us something about itself, allowed life to re-arrange our lives. And it would be worth it because life is, ultimately, beautiful. Like the Roberto Benigni movie, "Life is Beautiful," "Bella" is set in dire, sad circumstances, but they never totally eclipse the bigness, the aliveness, the hope, the love and possibilities hidden in them. The whole movie, in fact, gives us an unspoken philosophy by which we might learn to see and hear what we are missing as we forge ahead with our agendas in our hyped-up lives.


José, (Mexican telenovela superstar Eduardo Verástegui, Chasing Papi) a soccer hero turned chef, works for his tyrannical brother. Nina (Tammy Blanchard, The Good Shepherd), unmarried and newly pregnant (we never see the father), works as a waitress in the same restaurant. When Nina gets fired, José follows her out the door. A day of friendship and discovery ensues. We learn of José's (and Nina's) sorrow-ridden past.

Nina--unsure of herself and suspicious of life--needs a friend, and José becomes a part of her life at just the right moment. Giving birth is not an option for Nina, and abortion is not an option for José. There is no melodrama, desperation, pleading, sentimentality, urgency, ideology, or preaching. There is only a realistic dilemma, honesty and compassion. We are kept guessing until the astonishing ending.


Lest this sound like a weepy chick flick, let me assure you, you will be guffawing  through the whole thing. "Bella" is something fresh. It evokes a sense of receiving life as it comes. Receiving from life. Letting life tell its own story without imposing on it. It is every bit as much a guy's movie as a woman's movie, with a strong male perspective from first-time writer/director Alejandro Monteverde. Abortion: a man's issue? This, perhaps, is why it won first place at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. OK, I did cry at the very end, when the credits were rolling and the enormity and profundity of the conclusion hit me.


The opening beach scene sets a tone of contemplation, but then we are cast into the bubbling pot of a busy New York restaurant kitchen. The contrast is clear. If we want peace in our frenzied lives, we need less of the kitchen and more of the beach. But we have to take the beach with us, and that's going to require some very tough choices.


Visually intimate and stunning with a wondrous soundtrack by first-time film composer Stephan Altman, "Bella" is a meditation, a day in-the-life, slice-of-life, the-cracks-in-between-life, hard-to-classify film. The filmmakers bring a Latino sensibility to the work, and while it follows the protocols of American movies enough to assure us we're not watching a foreign film, there's a decidedly different ethos running through it. And we like it. It's unsensationally human. A friend at film school once said: "I think people sometimes feel reduced when they come out of the cinema. They've witnessed incredible special effects, impossibly snappy dialogue and the most beautiful people in the world doing things they'll never do." Some may argue that that kind of escape is exactly what people want—they don't want to see life as they already know it. But "Bella" is not life as we already know it either. "Bella," without the slightest hint of cliché, opens us up to the everyday wonder right in front of us. The already powerful audio brings this home in one haunting, seemingly random scene toward the beginning of the movie. Jose and Nina are on a crowded New York subway, and one of those percussion groups using overturned plastic buckets begins to entertain. Their music is the "I-should-be-happy-even-when-I-don't-want-to-be-happy, happy-in-spite-of-myself, transcend-the-mundane, listen-and-you-can-hear-it-too" rhythm of life.


There is a wildness and freedom to the camerawork, without it being jarringly experimental. It's conventional enough to be comfortable and different enough to be breathtaking. It's like a heat-seeking missile in every scene. What's important here? Where's the heartbeat? I got that rare sense that the camera was a character in the film, telling us the story as only a camera can, especially at compelling, poignant moments—as in life--when words and facial expressions become ridiculously inadequate. Existential moments beyond emotions, beyond even grief, when only a kind of impressionistic poetry will do. The camerawork was so right, so correct at these moments that I found myself nodding: Yes! That's exactly what it feels like! The skillful use of flashbacks and flashforwards tell us just enough of what we need to know in the least amount of time, so that the rest can breathe, stretch out and slow down. The exquisite, organically embedded symbolism hits days after leaving the theater: lanterns, apples, a garden, the ocean….


We Westerners like to believe we're in charge. But this movie questions us: How much are we really in control of? As the saying goes, we aren't the one who get to question life, life questions us. Those that do not bend, break. Life is all about change and adaptation and somehow making room for more life. "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."


"Bella" is a "small" movie, but its scope is as wide as the profoundest human quandaries and longings. "Bella," for all its deceivingly understated laid-backness, is humanism at its zenith. It is humans understanding humans. Although we make a big deal out of peace talks and diplomacy and negotiations and the men/women mars/venus split, in the end, it's really not that hard to listen to each other and understand each other's travails. If we'll take the time. And, in the end, as each character overlaps the next, tragedy is communal. We are not meant to bear our burdens alone.


After experiencing "Bella," we do not feel reduced, but built up—not on a saccharine high, but on the respect, the reverence that we are all due as that unique human creature: able to think, to choose and to love.



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