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

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Features Brilliant Acting




Directed by George C. Wolfe

Netflix, 94 minutes, R (language, sexual situations)





Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom* began life as a 1982 play from August Wilson, so it’s only fair that the slightly altered movie version was directed by Tony Award-winning George C. Wolfe. If you’re looking for something that is perhaps unfair, Chadwick Boseman lost out on a Best Acting Oscar for his last film. (For the record, I too would have voted for Anthony Hopkins’ astonishing turn in The Father.)


Filmed plays generally don’t impress Academy Award voters. Ma Rainey’s got five nominations but did not carry off any of the major awards. Ironically it won for costume design and makeup/hairstyling, the most “cinematic” elements in what is essentially a filmed stage performance. It does, however, escape the claustrophobic feel many plays succumb to on the screen. That’s because Wolfe zoomed the cameras in tight to capture the intense expressiveness of the actors in ways that could have easily been lost live for those sitting in the cheap(er) seats.


The tale–most of which is fictionalized–takes place on a single day in Chicago: July 2, 1927. Rainey (Viola Davis) was at the height of her powers as the “Mother of the Blues.” This gave her more leverage than most Black women had (though nothing like we see in the film). Rainey is presented as a Black prima donna who could toy with White men. She shows up for a recording session at the Paramount on her time, not the scheduled one, and when her White manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) meekly tries to nudge her along, she tells him how things will go down. And lord help studio head Johnny Coyne (Mel Sturdyvant) when he pushes hard; Ma pushes harder. You name the shot and Ma takes it, be it sending out for Coca-Colas she gluttonously chugs, dictating arrangements, or commanding that the spoken intro to a song be delivered by her stuttering nephew no matter how many takes are necessary.


Still, Ma knows there are limits, something older bandmates Toledo (Glynn Turman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), and Slow Dawg (Michael Potts) also understand. Chicago wasn’t the Deep South, but it was just eight years removed from one of the 20th century’s worst race riots. Danger comes via the two whelps in the ensemble, the fetching Dussie Mae and the high-strung Levee Green (Boseman). Dussie, a character based loosely on Bessie Smith, is sexually alluring and seeks to parlay that into advancing herself, be it through some lesbian-charged flirtations with Ma or playing hard-but-not-too-hard-to-get with Levee.


Levee is the script’s most volatile character. He knows about white violence but his ego constantly trips his common sense. He pays no heed to warnings that Whites only kowtow when money is on the line. Levee thinks he doesn’t need the band or Ma. After all, Coyne has “promised” him Ma will do one of his arrangements and will probably buy several of his compositions. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

Both Davis and Boseman are wonderful in the film. Davis is nearly unrecognizable as Ma, whom she presents as obese and sweaty with bad makeup and teeth. Yet she’s so in charge behind a mic that you’d never know that Maxayn Lewis actually did the vocals. And when her Ma is angry, the glare alone could melt the paint from the walls.


Boseman’s performance reminds us of what was lost when cancer took him at age 43. We see early on that’s he’s so hotwired he will self-combust, yet the conflagration is even more infernal than imagined. (That is, unless one has seen other August Wilson plays.) Boseman also walked a sags-in-the-middle tightrope between a talented musician and a naif street punk. In neither role does he see there is no net underfoot.


Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a powerful viewing experience. Remember that most of the story is invented, as are all of the characters except Rainey and aforementioned Bessie Smith(ish) stand-in. You can learn more about the real Ma Rainey on Wikipedia than you can from the film. Wolfe and producer Denzel Washington aimed at neither a biopic nor historical dramatization. Instead, the goal is to explore Black characters along the margins of a three-ringed Venn diagram where talent, moxie, and race overlap. The survivors know when to step away from the edges and retreat to safety; the victims do not. Even Rainey erred; she failed to recognize that her popularity would wane after 1927.


Rob Weir


The black bottom was an exuberant Jazz Age dance. I don’t know if Wilson intended a double entendre.