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Bella drew headlines last year for its pro-life message, a rarity in modern films not featuring a snarky teen or a Judd Apatow man-child. The ideological battle lines were quickly drawn, distracting us from what a gentle tale Bella has to tell, even if one disagrees with its final judgments.

The film’s storytelling ambitions might be as modest as its budget, but there’s undeniable beauty in the imagery and performances put forth. So it’s a shame that Bella‘s leisurely pace and occasional detours into mawkishness will distract those on both sides of the abortion issue.

Jose (Eduardo Verastegui from Chasing Papi) works as a chef at his brother Manny’s New York City restaurant. An early flashback shows us a different Jose, a cocky, clean-shaven soccer star en route to signing a million dollar contract. We find out later that trip never happens.

Jose’s colleague, a bedraggled waitress named Nina (Tammy Blanchard) shows up late, again, at the restaurant. Manny callously dismisses her without so much as an argument. Jose rushes to Nina’s side after the firing, even though we’re never told the depth of their connection. Something, it seems, is drawing them together.

Turns out Nina’s lateness was due to her being pregnant, and she’s despondent at the loss of her job. So Jose does what he can to cheer her up. They walk through the city together, enjoy a lavish meal with Jose’s family, and share their deepest secrets when they finally lower their defenses.

Director Alejandro Monteverde shows the Big Apple’s fractured beauty in a way Woody Allen rarely does. Bella may trudge along just when it should be soaring, but it’s clear Monteverde cares more about the sights and smells of Manhattan than pinpoint plotting.

That same approach is applied to the scenes in Manny’s kitchen, a bustling work place filled with three-dimensional characters and mouth-watering meals. Audiences will practically smell the Cuban food sizzling on the dinner plates. Bella‘s restaurant set pieces are the tastiest film snippets since Big Night.

Later, Monteverde falls back on his eye for beautiful compositions with a scene in which Jose and Nina help Jose’s father plant flowers. The camera moves tenderly over the tilled soil, the flowers standing out in sharp relief against the muddy earth.

The director is less forceful with his attractive leads. Blanchard is mostly effective as Nina, a woman trying to juggle an unwanted pregnancy and money woes with no real solution in sight. But poor Verastegui has trouble emoting from under his Jesus-like beard, one of several obvious symbols thrust before us.

The character interactions can’t compete with the vibrant scenery. Some of the Nina-Jose conversations sound more like telenovela musings, not fully realized discussions. One exception is the moment when Nina first reveals her pregnancy to Jose. Nina explains that she lacks the money, and proper father figure, to raise a child right now, while Monteverde uses tight close-ups without overextending the sequence’s natural emotions. I wish the occasionally maudlin soundtrack didn’t interfere during such poignant moments.

Where Bella is an unqualified success is in its loving depiction of Latino culture, a true rarity these days. The characters here hail from several different Latin countries, but the lingering image viewers will walk away with is that of Jose’s welcoming home. The food, of course, is front and center here, but so is the familial warmth flowing from Jose back to Nina, a woman the family only knows by name before the action begins. Even Manny, the cruelest character in the film, reveals a tender side in Bella‘s final minutes that makes the viewer reconsider him from the ground up.

Bella captured the Peoples Choice Award at last year’s Toronto’s International Film Festival, and its stark but emotionally pure story makes it clear why it won over the crowd.

A generic “behind-the-scenes” segment sheds the expected amount of light on the film’s production. Far better is a multi-segment feature detailing the fight to distribute the film independently, and the necessary alliances forged along the way. The filmmakers’ passion wasn’t enough to get Bella in theaters nationwide. It took tremendous word of mouth via the festival circuit, asking the right questions to the right studio insiders and a fortuitous partnership with Goya Foods to ensure its success.

The cast and crew reflect on more than just Bella’s journey to the big screen. They share how important the film’s positive lessons were in their commitment to the project, although they speak of their spiritual intentions in more guarded terms. To everyone involved in Bella, the film’s ultimate success seems almost secondary to the chance to tell a story that spoke to their hearts.

RATING 5 / 10