Director Vera Brunner-Sung's first feature film, Bella Vista, is a moving piece of cinema—and that's impressive, as there's very little movement in it at all. The film follows Doris, played by Kathleen Wise, an adjunct English language teacher at the University of Montana, and a group of foreign students taking her class. Throughout the story, Doris and her students try to figure how they fit into a new town and a new life. Each shot of the movie is like an individual pretty picture—a literal "bella vista"whether it's focusing on a huge landscape or a small interaction between people. Doris, through most of the movie, appears as either tiny against a huge landscape, or set out of frame or out of focus to everyone else. She does little and says little, yet she occupies the film with a presence that's overwhelmingly lonely. It's a deftly purposeful tack to take on Brunner-Sung's part, making the film less a plot-lined story and more of a meditation on emotion and place.
Though it's a story about the unfamiliar, Missoula viewers will recognize the scenery. Shot entirely in and around Missoula and the Flathead Reservation, Bella Vista takes full advantage of its locale. There are, of course, the obvious shots of huge mountains and the great outdoors. But Bella Vista also showcases local neighborhoods, small shops, a hotel and the university. Even Southgate Mall gets some pondering time, as Doris wanders, trying to find where she fits in.
The occasional stumble in the film happens within dialogue. Scenes between Doris and the human resources woman at the university are particularly clumsy. The dialogue feels forced, probably because it's mostly used for exposition. But, thankfully, those awkward scenes are few and far between. The whole film might have been even more awkward, as it is made up of mostly nonprofessional actors—real foreign exchange students from UM. But maybe it's because the students know the feeling of being displaced abroad that the emotion comes across authentically.
During a field trip to Fort Missoula, Doris and her students learn about Japanese and Italian internment camps that were there during World War II. Oddly enough, talking about this dark chapter in Missoula history takes on a sweet edge in the film. As the students talk about immigrants who were forced to be in Missoula, a bond develops among them, formed by their shared experience as immigrants in much happier circumstances. Doris has her learning moments, too, from a Salish man, but her epiphany comes outside of school, away from the students, once again making her seem alone.
The moments of clarity give the film a pleasantness that similarly toned films miss, including anything Terence Malick has put out in recent years. In one standout scene, Yuri, played by Hiroka Matsushima, has an interaction with an older patron at the counter in Ruby's Cafe. The patron reminisces about his time in Japan, and he and Yuri share some laughs. Without being heavy-handed, their talk sums up the film's insistence on the importance of human connection, even across cultural and geographical gaps.
Bella Vista isn't a Hollywood movie, in the best way possible. Still, it posits some of the same questions as Christopher Nolan's concurrent blockbuster, Interstellar. The characters ponder their place in time and space in the face of vast loneliness. Whereas Interstellar relies on Matthew McConaughey's platitudes, Bella Vista allows the questions to slowly surface. It's more challenging and it takes more patience than a splashy popcorn flick, but that's exactly what makes it worth seeing.
Bella Vista screens at the Roxy Fri., Nov. 21, and Sat., Nov. 22, at 7 and 9 PM, and Sun., Nov. 23, at 2 PM.