The Toronto Film Festival has a strong track record when it comes to the quality of its People’s Choice Award winners. With films as disparate as David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), the audience at Toronto has pegged quite a few excellent films over the years. Unfortunately, 2006’s winner, Bella, seems to be a misstep – something apparently sensed by distributors who hardly rushed to bring it to theaters, since it’s only now making it out into the world in a very limited release.
It’s easy to see why Bella would win an audience award, since it’s a film firmly entrenched in the heartstring-tugging school of filmmaking. This, along with its overall message, has it being promoted by churches that have latched onto the film’s pro-life message. However, the film comes across not so much pro-life or explicitly Christian—despite its extremely slight Catholic undertones, which are more window dressing than anything else – as it does pro-adoption. Regardless, it’s difficult not to walk away from the film without sensing Bella‘s very slight misogynistic bent, since the crux of the film remains a man trying to convince a woman—or guilt-trip her, depending on how you want to read it—into what he thinks she should do with her body. Nonetheless, abortion is one of the stickiest and most divisive of subjects, and Bella manages to avoid any heavy-handedness when it comes to its pro-life stance. Although it does become ham-fisted while proselytizing about adoption and the power of family.
The plot centers on Jose (Mexican soap star Eduardo Verastegui), a former soccer player turned chef, and a waitress named Nina (Tammy Blanchard, The Good Shepherd). When Nina loses her job due to tardiness, Jose soon learns she was late because she was taking a pregnancy test, which also turned out to be positive. Jose decides to skip out on work to accompany Nina around New York City, until he learns of her plans to have an abortion. Jose then lets her in on the secret tragedy that cost him his soccer career—among other things—in an attempt to have her consider adoption.
Verastegui and Blanchard share the bulk of the screen time, and while they have some chemistry together, neither sets the world on fire. Some are setting Verastegui up as the next big actor coming out of Mexico, with Roger Ebert even going as far as calling him “the next Antonio Banderas,” although he comes across as a less charismatic Banderas. While he does have an innate charm, Verastegui ends up walking through much of the film with a look of phony concern and inner-turmoil plastered across his face—the kind of look that just screams “serious actor.”
The film’s biggest problem is its script. Much of the plotting ranges from the far-fetched—like the idea that Jose’s great tragedy would have, in reality, resulted in jail time—to the silly—like how Jose’s ex would immediately recognize him after more than four years’ separation and the great big bushy beard he’s grown in the process. In addition, the subplot involving Jose’s brother (Manny Perez, Party Monster), who owns the restaurant, ends up feeling like fluff just to pad the film to feature length.
Bella remains an OK, well-intentioned, handsome-looking little film, regardless of how you might feel about its politics. It’s unfortunate that the film’s good intent ultimately hurts it, since, as a whole, the film is never able to obtain the weight it’s looking for. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief disturbing images.