Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde wrote the script for his award-winning feature film, Bella, while on sabbatical at Lake Tahoe. Pretty plush digs for a guy who, only a couple of years previously, was bunking in a mail room at the University of Texas.
Alejandro ended up sacking out in the mail room because – according to executive producer Sean Wolfington, who introduced the director to the packed AFI Dallas Film Festival audience – he’d just turned down a lucrative film deal that was incompatible with his artistic vision. Instead of taking the quick money, he hunkered down and (presumably) lived on ramen noodles until the chance came along to make the film he wanted to make.
Producer Sean Wolfington and director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
Which it did, as soon as he hooked up with producer/co-writer (and former Fox business affairs executive) Leo Severino. Leo, after hearing the gist of the story treatment from Alejandro, immediately introduced him to Philadelphia-based entrepreneur and Metanoia Films partner Wolfington.
Regardless of the details of this charming “artistic vision” backstory, I will state for the record that the movie these guys made will succeed without any such hype, because it’s one of those rare films that catches you by the emotional short hairs and refuses to let go. By the time the final reel plays, you’re going to be weeping tears of commingled sadness and joy – unless you happen to have blocked tear ducts. (And, if you do, you might consider a viewing of this movie as a possible cure.)
Bella is really not so much a love story (in the sense of two people falling head over heels) as it is a story about love and how it can heal psychic wounds and enrich our lives. The story centers around former soccer star Jose (played by the charismatic and romance-novel hunky Eduardo Verástegui, who is also a principal of Metanoia Films), whose career is cut short by a tragic accident. Jose now works as head chef for his hard-ass restaurant-owner brother, Manny (Manny Perez), who knows exactly how to run a successful New York eatery but can’t tell you the first thing about the families, dreams, hopes or aspirations of his employees.
One of Manny’s waitresses, Nina (Tammy Blanchard, in – go ahead and quote me – a transcendent, Oscar-worthy performance), has just discovered she’s pregnant, and – due to morning sickness – she shows up late for work. Since this is her third such transgression (Manny’s pretty strict about these things), she’s summarily fired.
Jose, sensing a friend in need of help, bails from his chef shift to follow Nina and offer whatever comfort his companionship might provide. The remainder of the film chronicles Nina and Jose’s day together as they learn about each other through the sharing of hopes, fears, and – most potently – pain.
They hop a train at Penn Station and travel to the New Jersey shoreline home of Jose’s parents (Angélica Aragón and Jaime Tirelli). There, Jose’s other brother, Eduardo (Ramon Rodriguez) is preparing to welcome his new girlfriend to dinner; he enlists Jose’s expert services in preparation of the meal.
Jose’s parents’ welcoming embrace, along with Eduardo’s irrepressible enthusiasm for life, expose Nina to a side of family relationships she’s unfamiliar with. This exposure takes on heavy importance in light of the decision she must make about her future.
The action is briskly paced, except where lingering is called for. Styles of cinematography (jerky documentary; dolly-mounted tracking; creatively angled placements) are thoughtfully employed to advance the film’s narrative structure. Some of the full-frame close-ups approach the Sergio Leone level of extremity, as if by closely examining a character’s facial nuance we may gain a magnified sense of their inner thoughts. Funny: when talented actors face the camera, this seem to work.
Ali Landry as distraught mom Celia. (In real life, she plays the role of Alejandro’s wife.)
It would be downright churlish for me to reveal anything more of the plot, because it might lessen the impact for those of you who intend to experience the film for yourselves (it will premiere commercially right here in Big D sometime in August). Suffice it to say that, by the time this deceptively simple tale is fully told, we’ve come to understand that the most powerful of miracles are those that come to us most naturally, and that the contrast between what is and what might have been hits home with the force of a cathartic visceral punch.
The credits rolled to an enthusiastic volley of applause (and not a few throat-clearings), following which Mr. Monteverde took the stage for a brief Q/A session. While he assured us that no substantive content changes were planned, he was clear on the point that what we saw was still a rough cut – the same version, in fact, that screened in Toronto and took home the audience award.
As for casting, the director indicated that Ms. Blanchard was not his first choice for the role of Nina, and that when he first heard her read for the part he didn’t care for her take on it; also, he was hoping for a bigger Hollywood name. But between the casting director, who thought Ms. Blanchard’s star would be on the rise following her role in The Good Shepherd, and Ms. Blanchard herself, who convinced him that she was literally born to play Nina, he relented.
For the role of Jose, there was never any question: the script was written from the beginning with Mr. Verástegui in mind, with the result that he wears the part on screen like a tailored suit of clothes.
PROTESTING TOO MUCH?
“I used to worry. Then I did a little research and
found out that ten out of ten people die.” – Nina to Jose, as
they ride the train to the New Jersey seashore.
Alejandro Gomez Monteverde
BRIEF Q/A with director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde:
What was your inspiration for making Bella? Was the concept based on events in your own life?
Alejandro Gomez Monteverde:
I was very inspired to make a film that could touch people’s hearts and inspire audiences to love more and judge less.
Somehow, yes, the story was inspired by a series of true stories, stories that happened to people close to me, so what I did was to connect those stories and the result was Bella. Also, the family in the film is just like my family.
Which speaks directly to my next question. This film emphasizes the role of a closely-knit family. So you drew on your own family members when creating the characters?
The family that is presented on the film is just like my family. I believe that family is the foundation of one’s self. In Bella we see two broken souls; their language is the pain they carry inside. However Jose knows that his family can becom a medicine to ease that pain. We all have families and in the end our families play a big role in who we are today. The characters in Bella come from that.
Bella depicts a love story where the two characters don’t kiss passionately in the rain and don’t tell each other they love each other. Did you strive to keep from these cliches and expectations?
My intention from the beginning was to make a love story that goes beyond romance. Normally when we think of love we think of a romantic one, and I wanted to make a film about that kind of love that goes beyond the romantic scenarios, a love story between two human beings, allowing the characters to experience the love that understands and does not judge.
The image of the butterfly associated with a young girl’s death brings to mind chaos theory, which holds that every event in life, even the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, can create significant consequences in the world. This one event is what changes Jose’s life. Likewise, is there one even that changed your life and made you who you are?
What a great question. I believe that all of us will have at least one experience in our lives that will somehow change our lives forever, and if it hasn’t happen to us yet it will. That was pretty much the essence of the film. A lot of things have happened in my life that made me who I am today, however I don’t have one that stands out among any of my personal experiences.
What awards has Bella received?
Bella won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival; The Smithsonian Institution honored Bella with a Legacy Award for its contribution to the Latin culture. Also it was nominated for an Estela Award by NALIP (National Latino Independent Producers).
Interview by Chad Jones; red carpet photos by John P. Meyer