Emotion trumps logic in Bella, a thin, day-in-the-life tale overstuffed with melodramatic grand gestures. Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde and his co-writer Patrick Million are so eager to offer their troubled characters redemption that they pile on the pain and then trigger a cathartic release. That manipulation has yielded results: This mediocre movie won the People's Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.
What saves it from becoming a sluggish muddle are heartfelt performances and a low-key style that keeps the film grounded, even when Monteverde tries to coat New York City, portrayed here as a multicultural wonderland, with a sheen of magical realism. (The only magic here is how two people can use a single Metrocard.) Bella doesn't seem amateurish as much as half-formed, a collection of impassioned narratives that never mesh into a cohesive whole.
José (Eduardo Verástegui), who's a chef in the Mexican restaurant owned by his demanding brother Manny (Manny Perez), is taciturn and nose-to-the-grindstone reliable, with a Christ-like countenance that includes a shaggy beard and the feeling that he's spent time wandering in the wilderness. (Perhaps naming him Jesús was too obvious even for Monteverde.)
He seems to have nothing to do with the slick-haired José seen in flashbacks, wearing sleek retro duds and pointy shoes, driving a vintage convertible, and smoking a huge cigar. (All visual cues to a different era, confusing since events take place only a few years before.)
Neither of these Josés offers a clue as to why the usually stalwart chef would suddenly walk out during the lunch rush to pursue Nina (Tammy Blanchard), the waitress Manny has just fired for tardiness, not realizing that she just learned she's pregnant. José, in his white uniform, and Nina, a WASPy Frida Kahlo in a colorful, traditional Mexican ensemble, look like refugees from an off-Broadway play, wandering the streets and quickly bonding.
They leave the city and visit the small beachside town where José's parents (Jaime Tirelli and Angelica Aragon) maintain the family home as a safe haven and lovingly tease their adult children. It's here that Monteverde unravels his family reconciliation agenda, a very pat set of solutions for deep-seated guilt and trauma.
This resolutely old-fashioned tearjerker tries to reach the heart by bypassing the head. Monteverde rewards the sacrifices made by his characters, but he shouldn't ask his audience to forgo a coherent story line for a good cry.