"Bella" is a film about selfless love that wants to be loved too much. Manipulative pic trades in fairy-tale views of New York life alongside briefly sustained emotional confessions, which may partly explain its victory as Toronto fest's aud winner.

So slight that a gentle breeze might tip it over, “Bella” is a film about selfless love that wants to be loved too much. Manipulative pic trades in fairy-tale views of New York life alongside briefly sustained emotional confessions, which may partly explain its victory as Toronto fest’s aud winner. Mexican-born helmer Alejandro Monteverde’s debut will be remembered as a curious case of a mediocre film that wows crowds; still, domestic distrib still isn’t set four months after preem, portending that best prospects may remain in vid and cable.

Former soccer pro Jose (Mexican pop and telenovela star Eduardo Verastegui) is lead chef at a fine Manhattan-based Mexican restaurant owned and operated by his brother Manny (Manny Perez). Intolerant of sloppy behavior or tardiness, Manny fires server Nina (Tammy Blanchard) when she shows up late, unaware that she’s just learned that she’s pregnant.

Nina, however, could easily have been to work on time, since her delay was due to her buying and using a homepregnancy test — something she rationally would have done after her shift was over. Though it would be easy to conclude that her character sabotages her own best prospects in life, such an intriguing wrinkle is never even contemplated in Monteverde and Patrick Million’s cut-and-dried script.

Similarly burdened with half-developed motivations, Jose impulsively ups and leaves his post just as the restaurant is about to open its doors for lunch and accompanies Nina around the city for the rest of the day, despite the fact that he barely knows her and the entire kitchen operation depends on him.

With its storyline based on such inexplicable behavior, “Bella” is seriously behind the dramatic eight ball, and trusts that the effective chemistry between the two leads will help auds ignore the many narrative potholes. One doesn’t object to Verastegui’s habit of directing puppy-dog looks Blanchard’s way — a clear attempt on the heartthrob’s part to soften his sexy image, furthered by wearing a large beard that gives him an odd Jesus-like visage. (Jose’s unshaven face is seen in flashbacks to five years earlier, when his troubles began.)

Jose and Nina spend the day visiting his loving parents (the fine Angelica Aragon and Jaime Terelli) –a model of middle-class Mexican familial harmony that emotionally touches Nina, who has no family herself — and delivering monologues to each other about their pasts. Jose’s speech ushers in the film’s major set piece, a tragic mishap followed by several needlessly time-bending montages — in which Jose convinces Nina to keep the child and allow him to raise it — and a strangely elliptical ending.

The warm stars can do only so much to humanize a mucky narrative that unavoidably lessens the film’s emotional thrust. Perfs are suited to Monteverde’s staging and Andrew Cadelago’s bland lensing, both tuned to a television-like aesthetic. Editing by Fernando Villena stutters where it should flow, and is occasionally gripped by hysterical bursts of cross-cutting.

Bella

Production

A Metanoia Films presentation in association with the One Media and M Power Worldwide. (International sales: International Creative Management, Los Angeles.) Produced by Alejandro Monteverde, Eduardo Verastegui, Leo Severino, Denise Pinkley. Executive producers, Sean Wolfington, J. Eustace Wolfington, Ana Wolfington, Steve McEveety. Directed by Alejandro Monteverde. Screenplay, Monteverde, Patrick Million.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Andrew Cadelago; editor, Fernando Villena; music, Stephan Altman; music supervisor, Frankie Pike; production designer, Richard Lassalle; art director, Justin Kemler; set decorator, Susan Ogu; costume designer, Eden Miller; sound (Dolby Digital), Richard Murphy; sound designer-supervising sound editor, Stephen Flick; re-recording mixers, Scott Hinkley, Jonathan Wales; associate producers, Dan Genetti, Matthew Malek, Glen Trotiner; assistant director, Trotiner; casting, Beth Dowling, Kim Miscia. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Jan. 29, 2007. (Also in Toronto, Los Angeles Latino, Miami, San Diego festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Jose -- Eduardo Verastegui Nina -- Tammy Blanchard Manny -- Manny Perez Mother -- Angelica Aragon Father -- Jaime Tirelli Celia -- Ali Landry Eduardo -- Ramon Rodriguez
With: Sophie Nyweide, Ewa Da Cruz. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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