Bel Canto: The Movie


BEL CANTO (2018)

Directed by Paul Weitz

Screen Media Films, 102 minutes, Unrated (some violence, adult situations)





Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A Japanese businessman, a translator, a priest, and an opera singer walk into a mansion....


Bel Canto is based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel. If you didn’t know a movie had been made of it, join the throng. At a crucial moment, opera megastar Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) is commanded to sing from a balcony ringed by gunmen. She is told that no one will shoot her and quips, “Are you sure? Not everyone loves opera.”


That was apparently the case of audiences, such as they were. Bel Canto netted just $350k in ticket sales and scored just 5.4/10 on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s probably the best film that could have been made from Patchett’s rich book, but Roxane’s question is pertinent. Moore’s vocals were voiced by Renée Fleming, opera’s reigning queen soprano, but it wasn’t enough to lift the movie to jeweled levels. I’m not an opera fan either, but Patchett’s novel made me care. The movie scores more for its drama and romance than the music.


Patchett’s fictional tale is loosely based on a 1996 hostage standoff in Lima, Peru, in which Túpac Amaru rebels took over the Japanese embassy for 126 days. In the film, it’s a mere month, the South American nation is unnamed, and various details are changed. One of the film’s weaknesses, though, is that we have very little sense of how much time has passed. That’s curious as it could/should have been easily resolved in the editing process.


The hostage-takers are not doctrine-spouting Maoists. They speak of workers and comrades, but many of them admire high culture and are either literate or wish to be. They are also young, ideologically vague, and surprisingly gentle for gun-toting sloganeers. They break into the vice president’s mansion with the intention of kidnapping the nation’s president (a knockoff of Peru’s Alberto Fujimori). He, however, is a no-show because he stayed home to watch his favorite television program–he’s not an opera fan either–rather than rub elbows with Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). His functionaries have already done salted a trade deal by securing Coss to sing for Hoskawa’s birthday. There’s not much left for the frustrated revolutionaries to do except release the sick, children, and all the women except Coss, their most prominent bargaining chip.  


There are other key individuals inside, including multilingual translator Gen (Ryo Kase), a French ambassador (Christopher Lambert), and a Russian trader (Olek Krupa). The rebels are led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), who presides over a band of cherubs in fatigues. Among them Carmen, an illiterate Mayan lass who wants to learn to read, speak, and write Spanish and English. The hostage negotiator is Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch), a hardened Swiss Red Cross inermediary.


What unfolds is a series of improbable romances, begrudging mutual respect, and we’re-all-in-this-together bonding over water, food, music, chess, soccer, opera, and shared humanity. Ultimately Bel Canto raises questions of whose violence is more justifiable (if any at all). Both flag-waving patriots and ideologues might find the script unpalatable, but Bel Canto delivers us somewhere near the dictum attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”


The acting in Bel Canto is decent, even when the script logic falters. Watanabe stands out as an honorable man who has too long buried that aspect of himself. Kase also delivers in that we never quite know his true motives, and it’s hard not to love Coroy, an innocent mite swallowed by forces much bigger than she. That’s also true of most of the revolutionaries, a warning of how glib it can be to apply cavalierly the label "terrorist." Koch is also superb as a fearless and intense negotiator who has seen too much to expect happy endings. Moore lip synchs well, though she sometimes forgets she’s supposed to be a diva and adopts mannerism more in keeping with a movie starlet.


Should you give Bel Canto a chance? Yes, but with reduced expectations. The film needed to be longer to allow for more exposition. Watch it, but if you’ve not already done so, read Patchett’s novel. It will show you what was left out and will make you wonder why someone hasn’t previously told you to read it. Someone just has.


Rob Weir

No comments: