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Movie Review

Tender 'Bella' confronts love and fate

Email|Print| Text size + By Erin Meister
Globe Correspondent / November 9, 2007

"If you want to make God laugh," starts the romantic, hyper- earnest "Bella," "tell Him your plans." In this bilingual morality movie about love, family, and fate, however, the unpredictability turns out to be highly predictable.

José and Nina, two of New York City's meandering souls, find each other in the bustling kitchen of José's brother's Mexican restaurant. When Nina is suddenly fired and, despondent, admits to being pregnant, José puts himself and his job on the line to offer her comfort (and unsolicited advice). Though nearly strangers, he shows her a world of family and togetherness that she has never known, and suddenly things don't seem so black-and-white.

Eduardo Verástegui's José cuts a gentle figure next to Tammy Blanchard's relentlessly cynical, streetwise Nina, but while they may seem like a typically Hollywood opposites-attract couple, there is a kind of odd love triangle brewing, or, rather, gestating. José's real fixation is on Nina's unborn baby, for whom Nina herself appears to have little regard.

The film's agenda, however, is hardly the problem here; it's neither dynamic nor well-developed enough to inspire passion in audiences on either side of an obviously pro-life message. In fact, there isn't much of anything in this feature-length after-school special to get excited about: music, thematic direction, and plot lines don't go very far below the surface. The characters are also woefully underdeveloped; Nina doesn't get more than 10 minutes' worth of back story, and even that comes too late, after any chance of sympathy or, more important, empathy could have been established between the viewer and the young mother-to-be.

José, meanwhile, endures seemingly unending flashbacks of the tragedy of his recent past, but why should he be the center of a movie ostensibly about a woman facing the hardest decision of her life? Her's is the mind we so urgently need to enter. While some of the tender scenes between José and his vivacious family do play tug-of-war with the heartstrings, the rest of the off-balanced plot will leave some audience members holding the limp end of the rope.

"Bella" extols the joys and benefits of family life and parenthood without so much as knocking on the door of controversy, which would have given the film spark and life. It wants to answer the questions it's clearly too timid to ask, but the questions are always so much more interesting.

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