When sentiment goes head-to-head with substance, the smart money says to bet against gravitas. Audiences loved Bella at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, presenting Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's schmaltzy drama with its People's Choice Award over more challenging movies such as World War II exposés Indigenes and Black Book. Bella's honor endorses well-meaning but simplistic material over something more dense.
"Sentimental" doesn't have to be a put-down, as long as a filmmaker touches on high emotions without resorting to low manipulations. Mexican-born director Monteverde certainly crafts a heartfelt film about two damaged souls seeking conventional cinematic redemption, but Bella pushes buttons that feel all too familiar.
Bella spends roughly the course of a single day tracking the dawn of a warm, wary relationship between two employees at a high-end Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. Head chef Jose (Eduardo Verástegui), despite his taciturn manner, proves both essential to the eatery and more sensitive to his co-workers than he appears. Outspoken waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard) pushes against the dictatorial style of too-slick Manny (Manny Perez), who's both the manager and Jose's brother.
When Nina shows up late for work one morning, Manny fires her, although if she only said that she just found out she was pregnant, she doubtlessly would have kept her job. (Bella embraces a cliché that my friend, MSNBC.com critic Alonso Duralde, calls, "If We Have This Two-Minute Conversation, The Movie is Over.") Learning of Nina's dismissal, Jose abruptly goes after her, abandoning Manny and the kitchen staff to handle the lunch rush on their own.
Bella proves most effective at capturing the joys of playing hooky in New York. Monteverde crafts a Valentine to the Big Apple, but doesn't avoid its bruises – at one point Nina witnesses an out-of-nowhere convenience-store confrontation worthy of Paul Haggis' Crash. Nina and Jose chat with saintly street people, window-shop and lunch at a fancy restaurant, at which Jose might be able to secure her a new job. All the while, Nina grapples over her pregnancy while Jose hints at his own dark secret.
An early scene reveals that a few years earlier, Jose was a clean-cut, soon-to-be soccer star, driving with his manager to a press conference that would announce his $2.2 million contract. Only gradually does the film reveal what caused Jose's downfall: Fortunately, he had brilliant culinary skills to fall back on when pro soccer didn't pan out. In the present-day scenes, Jose's massive beard represents his inner turmoil, and perhaps the self-castigation of a Christian martyr.
Blanchard and Verástegui make a handsome movie couple, and you can appreciate that they're not overglamorized. But they're both a little blank. Verástegui's puppy-dog eyes suggest Colin Farrell, but he lacks the implosiveness that would make Jose's gloom interesting. Blanchard works at conveying Nina's anguish and the close watch she keeps over her softer feelings, but her big close-ups play like rudimentary soap opera fare.
Perez emerges as Bella's stand-out performer, perhaps reflecting the advantages antagonistic roles have over the nice ones. Perez nails Manny's attention to his dapper appearance, his insecurity as a restaurateur and the joy the character takes in playing boss. "That's a good sauce!" he extols to one worker, as if imagining himself as a generous king. It's easy to relish his desperation when Jose walks out. Bella's last scene has suspicious similarities to the finale of Big Night, another film about two brothers at the same restaurant.
Later in the film, Bella features several scenes with Nina being welcomed into the bosom of Jose's loving relatives. The film's eagerness to take joy in good food and happy families, along with its too-tidy upbeat ending, suggest that it has a chance of being an ethnic-themed sleeper hit like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Bella's despondent themes and New York-centeredness will probably get in the way of it being a hit, but cheap sentiment usually makes for bigger box office than cynicism, cheap or otherwise.