Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) is a New York chef in his brother’s Mexican restaurant, and he’s such a good chef that the kitchen can hardly operate without him.

But Jose would never win any of television’s “top chef” competitions.” His heart is too big. It’s so big, in fact, that his eyes almost shine, and his face is so wracked with sympathy for people in need that it’s easy to believe that he’s actually Jesus in disguise.

And that’s a good thing for Nina (Tammy Blanchard), the waitress who has just discovered that she’s pregnant. When her pregnancy test comes up positive, making her late for work, she keeps her secret even though her tardiness incurs the wrath of her boss. So Jose, sensing that something isn’t right, goes after her to try and console her. When he does, we learn that Jose is not Jesus at all. Rather, he’s a man with deep wounds of his own, and regret so powerful it has grown him an impressive beard.

As Jose and Nina get to know one another, we’re brought along on a memorable journey across New York, the highlight of which is some time in Jose’s house among a family of big personalities, big appetites, and big hearts. We’re also subject to jarring flashbacks that are jarringly incongruous with the quieter, more subtle aspects of the film — scenes that seem contrived, designed to make us bleed and sob and yearn for a resolution as unlikely as this scenario.

I enjoyed Bella, not so much because I find it to be a great work of art — it’s a decent movie with some admirable performances, endearing characters, and moments of quiet humor — but because it is a testament to the resourcefulness of inspired, creative people. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s first feature is a handsome, engaging film that was made on a very small budget, in very little time, with a good deal of improvisation and a lot of hard work. It’s a standup piece of work that looks like it was made on a budget ten times larger than what was actually available.

Having said that, it leans a little too heavily on sentimentality. And if I didn’t know the story of how the film was made, I would not have been quite so impressed. Bella is to romance and tearjerking drama what Primer was to mind-bending sci-fi.

But how much should the process of the film’s creation influence a critic’s assessment of the finished product?

The film itself is enjoyable, but hardly extraordinary. Tammy Blanchard steals the show with a convincing, understated performance, but there’s a lot more excitement out there over the lead actor, Eduardo Verástegui, whose screaming female fans could not contain themselves during the screening I attended. (The honor of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive can’t be too far from his reach, apparently.)

The storyline becomes rather predictable, but the actors achieve some delightful moments of incidental humor, and the handheld video is creatively employed without making anybody motion sick. My favorite scenes were those shared by the brothers, Jose and Manny (Manny Perez), because I had no trouble believing that they had a lot of history and a complicated relationship.

But near the end, the film starts working too hard to wring tears from the audience. I detached from the film emotionally with about 20 minutes to go (precisely when Nina starts talking about her mother), because the storytellers were working so hard to make me Feel! Cry! Care!

I already cared! I didn’t need any characters to offer long, revelatory monologues at the end to squeeze sympathy from my pores. If the film had cut out a good deal of the dramatic dialogue, if it had stopped trying to convince us that these characters deserve our compassion, we might have had more chance to arrive at our own conclusions, experience our own feelings, without being so manipulated. The film just strives too hard to make us feel, and not hard enough to make us think.

But Bella‘s heart is in the right place, and it’s refreshing to see a slow-build romance that has little or nothing to do with making out.

Many people have rushed to embrace, or dismiss, this film as a piece of Pro-Life propaganda. Others heralded it as championing the importance of Choice. Me, I don’t think the film works as propaganda for either campaign. This is a story about particular characters in a particular situation that is resolved in a particular way… it’s not meant to represent the ideal solution to single-girl pregnancy. It arrives at an ending that makes sense for this story and these characters, not a Message or a Lesson that sends us out ready to vote one way or the other. So it’s curious that the filmmakers welcomed the politicizing of the film. But then, in the world of independent filmmaking, some folks think that any press is good press, even if it skews the way people will see your movie when they finally sit down to watch it.

Here’s Roger Ebert:

The movie is not profound, but it’s not stupid. It’s about lovable people having important conversations and is not pro-choice or pro-life but simply in favor of his feelings — and hers, if she felt free to feel them. The movie is a little more lightweight than the usual People’s Choice Award winner at Toronto, but why not? It was the best-liked film at the 2006 festival, and I can understand that.

Steven Greydanus is a bigger fan of the film than I am, but I appreciate his thoughtful analysis:

Bella is not about the pro-life and pro-abortion “positions,” movements or causes, nor does it address the question of laws permitting or outlawing abortion. It is a drama about specific characters, relationships, events and decisions; broader issues are present only implicitly. José is Catholic, and his family, highlighted in a delightful domestic sequence, seems to take their faith seriously. José is clearly troubled by Nina’s decision — but he shows his commitment to life not in word, but in touching and heroic deed.

From a pro-choice perspective, Nina has all the reasons in the world to want an abortion. She rattles off a litany of them to José over lunch. They are understandable reasons. Over against this, Bella ultimately interposes, not more words or arguments, but a moment of revelation — a transcendent affirmation of life in its incalculable value.

In the end, Bella has something to challenge everyone, pro-life or otherwise. For pro-lifers, the inspiring ending represents a call to love of neighbor. It isn’t enough just to oppose abortion: We are called to love those in need with the love of Christ, potentially at a cost to ourselves. For those who favor abortion, the ending represents a challenge to recognize that life is a beautiful and precious gift even in far from ideal circumstances, and the choice to embrace life, even when it involves great sacrifice, is also beautiful.

Ken Morefield:

… All kidding aside, though. I didn’t hate Bella. Sure, it was contrived in manipulative ways — he killed a little girl, his family has successfully adopted, and he just happens to knows somebody willing to hire her on his say so – but so are a lot of critically acclaimed films that express an ideological point of view. … It shows its low budget in its editing at times (like the accident scene), but its free form conversational structure is the sort of thing critics have orgasms over if it’s in a Richard Linklater movie about sex, an Eric Rohmer movie about love, or a Seinfeld episode about nothing; so maybe it does feel a tiny bit like a cheap shot to me to give the film technical demerits for doing the sorts of things critics often find charming in films that aren’t so heavily perfumed. If it lacks the polish of a more processed commercial film or a more accomplished independent film, neither does it have the sort of glaring technical incompetence that is the defining feature of so many (religiously or politically) proselytizing films — films that evidence the makers never bothered to study their craft because they don’t care about art as art only art as delivery vehicle for truth with a capital “T.” I have no desire to ever see Bella again, haven’t thought much about it since I screened it, and didn’t struggle for a second wondering if there were any deeper meanings or insights to be gleaned from thinking intentionally about the film, but I wouldn’t rule out seeing another Montverde film or be sad to see the leads in something else.