'Bel Canto': Film Review

Tense thriller with just a few missteps.
9/14/2018

The big-screen adaptation of Ann Patchett's novel stars Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe as characters caught up in a hostage drama in an unnamed South American country.

Can you make a sympathetic movie about radical terrorists in today's world? That question certainly must have plagued the makers of Bel Canto, which could explain why the film version of Ann Patchett's acclaimed novel has taken almost two decades to reach the screen. The book was published in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks; it was inspired by a real-life hostage crisis that took place in Peru in 1996. But when the U.S. itself was attacked, all the ground rules changed.

Producer Caroline Baron optioned the novel in 2002, and although the movie isn't perfect, it was worth the wait. A superb, multicultural cast — headed by Oscar winner Julianne Moore — brings the fascinating story to life, but the subject matter may still be too disturbing to imagine anything more than modest box-office returns.

Moore plays Roxane Coss, a renowned opera singer who agrees to travel to an unnamed South American country to perform at a diplomatic dinner. A Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe) who is spearheading a business deal has requested her presence because of his admiration for her talent. (His lifelong obsession with opera was more thoroughly documented in the novel.) But Roxane has barely finished her performance when the party is invaded by a gang of armed rebels who take the entire group hostage in order to demand the release of political prisoners. The rebels were hoping to confront the country's president, but he skipped the party because he was unwilling to miss his favorite soap opera, which was on television that night.

That macabre comic touch, drawn straight from the novel, is indicative of the irreverent approach taken by writer-director Paul Weitz and co-writer Anthony Weintraub. There are other humorous and tender moments as the film gradually broadens its scope and introduces us to more than a dozen characters, including the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), a German negotiator (Sebastian Koch) and a Russian businessman (Olek Krupa), along with the rebels. The characters often have trouble communicating, so a Japanese translator brought by the tycoon and played by Ryo Kase has a crucial role in the drama.

Weitz made the wise decision to have characters speak in their own languages when appropriate, so much of the film is subtitled. The theme of multicultural interaction remains timely, perhaps especially so during the Trump era. Performances are uniformly excellent. One of the most appealing actors is Guatemalan actress Maria Mercedes Coroy, who starred in the film Ixcanul a few years ago and who plays a gun-toting rebel here. Watanabe has an imposing presence, and Moore performs with her customary warmth and skill. As the hostage crisis drags on, her musical performances help to bring the opposing factions together. (Opera star Renee Fleming provides the vocals, and the dubbing is technically adept.)

We know from real-life hostage situations that captors and captives can develop a certain sympathy for each other as their forced intimacy drags on. This was one of the strong themes of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon more than 40 years ago. That film unfolded over one long day. In Bel Canto, the hostages and prisoners are together for a much longer time, though it is never quite clear exactly how long. (The real hostage crisis in Peru lasted four months.)

This vagueness about the time frame leads to the pic's one significant flaw. As time passes, four of the people trapped in the mansion pair off as lovers, and this strains credulity, partly because the film never clarifies whether days, weeks or months have elapsed. Here Weitz runs up against one of the most challenging traps for a filmmaker: establishing the passage of time. A novelist can remind us how many days or weeks have elapsed. An older movie might have superimposed titles indicating "Day 2," "Day 23," and a much older film might have shown pages of a calendar dissolving. Obviously Weitz did not want to rely on such archaic techniques, but he may have underestimated the difficulty of clarifying the time frame in an artful but telling manner.

Nevertheless, the film benefits from the fine cast and from many sharp and poignant moments. It's an impressive achievement technically as well. The interiors of the South American mansion were shot in an estate in Yonkers, New York, while exteriors were filmed in Mexico City, and yet the atmosphere always seems authentic. Even to people who don't recall the outcome of the Peru hostage crisis, it is pretty clear that this story won't end well. But the implications reverberate, and many small human moments linger in the memory.

Production companies: Priority Pictures, A-Line Pictures, Depth of Field
Distributor: Screen Media
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Christopher Lambert, Ryo Kase, Olek Krupa, Tenoch Huerta, Maria Mercedes Coroy

Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriters: Paul Weitz, Anthony Weintraub, based on the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Producers: Caroline Baron, Anthony Weintraub, Lizzie Friedman, Andrew Miano, Karen Lauder, Greg Little
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Tommaso Orfino
Costume designer: Catherine Riley
Editor: Suzy Elmiger
Music: David Majzlin
Vocals: Renee Fleming

102 minutes