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What Would Jose Do?

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It's the weekend after Thanksgiving and what movies did not open in Richmond?

There's Todd Haynes' highly anticipated Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," by "Before Night Falls" director Julian Schnabel. Also unavailable for Richmond was "Margot at the Wedding," Noah Baumbach's dark follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "The Squid and the Whale."

So, perusing the Internet listings or looking over the local cineplex marquee, you may have been surprised to find the more modest "Bella," a first-time feature about a former soccer star (Eduardo Verastegui) who helps a waitress (Tammy Blanchard) decide whether she'll continue an unwanted pregnancy.

Unlike the complex and innovative limited-release options that Richmond didn't get, this film is extremely plain and earnest. Verastegui, a popular Mexican actor whose first American film was "Chasing Papi," plays José, a chef at a Latino restaurant in Manhattan owned by his brother (Manny Perez). When bro fires Nina (Blanchard) for being late again, José quits after learning her reason for her lack of work ethic. Nina is pregnant, instigating flashbacks for José about an accident when he was on the rise as a soccer star, a career that got derailed when he accidentally ran over a toddler in his large convertible. The rest of the film unfolds in a meandering walk through New York as José attempts to convince Nina to keep the baby.

If the plot sounds like the stuff of a made-for-television movie, you aren't off, but most network execs would find it too amateurish and flimsy for prime time -- though not if it promised to be the popular moneymaker and award-winner "Bella" has been. Some movies come bearing achievements that far exceed their narrative scope. Somehow "Bella" not only made it into 2007's Toronto Film Festival, but also walked away with the People's Choice award, which in recent years has indicated Academy Award nomination. (Past winners include "Tsotsi," "Hotel Rwanda" and "Shine.") While it hasn't won any more awards of that stature yet, "Bella" has gone on to phenomenal commercial success, receiving far greater distribution than most other films its size. You'd never guess from all this achievement that it's absolutely terrible.

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," goes the voice-over at the outset. If you want to make an audience laugh, tell them a story designed to tug heartstrings but not containing an ounce of credibility. Wouldn't it be perfect if we could all have a guide, deeply affected by a similar tragedy, walk us through difficult life decisions? And if he looked like Jesus, all the better. Verastegui grew long hair and a beard to disguise his model looks and, one supposes in part, to bear the appearance of a savior as his character tries to shepherd Nina to the right decision.

Trite coincidence and obvious symbolism are compounded by absurd components of the story. A lengthy flashback at the movie's center, for example, reveals the details of the tragedy that ended José's career in a moment-by-moment recap of cross cuts between a little girl playing with her mom and José and his buddy gliding down the street in their car. The information is not only unnecessary, but it allows the audience time to doubt its veracity. José is not driving fast, nor does he leave the scene after the little girl darts unexpectedly into the road. Why would he get in trouble for what is obviously an accident? To further the plot, of course!

Verastegui, a co-producer with director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, has stated in numerous interviews that with "Bella" he wanted to get away from the depiction of Latinos as banditos and Don Juans in favor of portraying them as family and community-oriented citizens. (Verastegui told me the same thing in an interview for another article.) "Real People" is what the movie aims for, and while one might admire the sincerity behind it, entertaining drama needs more than sincerity. Real people lead real lives, which are much messier than depicted in "Bella." As for its surprising reception among audiences, let's paraphrase Mencken: Filmmakers will never go broke underestimating the people's choice. (PG-13) 91 min. S





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