Though Julianne Moore’s performance wavers, it is still the highlight of Bel Canto, an otherwise overwrought book adaptation from writer-director Paul Weitz
The idea of a thriller kicking off at an ornate dinner is a trope that filmmakers have loved for years. The upstairs/downstairs domestic disputes, the beautiful dresses in tatters, the tragic interpersonal drama and more always build to a cacophonic finale that manages to show a literal class war that the movie attempts to moralize. Bel Canto falls squarely into the melodramatic form of this subgenre, borrowing as much from Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel as it does from Romeo and Juliet or any number of war movies. It’s unfortunate that it is nowhere near as impactful as it should be.
Bel Canto is based on a novel of the same name by writer Ann Pratchett, which is itself inspired by an actual hostage situation in Peru (the same year the film is set). The true events that inspired this movie would probably be more cinematic than what we wound up with, as they deal more directly with the ways in which the Peruvian government directly manipulated the people into thinking that the hostage-takers were simple terrorists when the truth was far more complicated. With Bel Canto, the political ideologies of the hostage takers are left by-and-large undefined, with the sympathetic hostage takers no better or worse than those who are made victims. With such a political movie you would hope for a deeper development of an argument, but the film seems far more focused on its romantic and personal entanglements than it does on how to build an argument for being a strong political movie in the first place.
When Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) arrives in an unnamed South American country with the promises of building a factory, he mainly attends in order to hear the singing of Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore). Coss is a world-renowned opera singer who will do any concert for the right price, and Hosokawa never planned on following up on his deal with powerless—and power-hungry—Vice President Ruben Ochoa (J. Eddie Martinez) to build the factory. When a militant group storms the dinner, their plan is to hold the hostages until their demands—the freeing of all political prisoners—is met. After a young soldier (Gabo Augustine) kills a hostage and a Red Cross negotiator (Sebastian Koch) arrives to help the militant’s reach their demands, the hostages and the militants begin an uneasy stalemate that lasts for the majority of the film.
This could make for a pretty great movie were it not for the fact that nearly every plot point and the political thriller elements as a whole outlined above is ignored almost instantly. VP Ochoa stops being a character very quickly, the guilt of the soldier is never brought up again, the negotiator becomes just another player in the house, and so on. This is all in favor of an examination of the (surprisingly PG-13) love lives of Hosokawa, and Coss, as well as a parallel relationship with Hosokawa’s translator Gen (Ryo Kase) and another militant (Maria Mercedes Coroy), comedically named Carmen in a film that has so many ties to opera.
This mention of opera brings up the true star performance of Bel Canto, which is the great Renee Fleming as the singing voice for Julianne Moore. Because of how much of the film has to rely on the singing prowess of Roxane Coss, it makes sense to get a professional singer to dub-over the character. But this hinders the lip-synching Moore in her singing scenes as you can’t see the strain that you would have found in Fleming herself if you were to watch a video with her. In almost every other aspect Moore’s performance is great (and one number, in particular, she nails) but it is the biggest foible for the best performance in the film. Watanabe and Coroy are also great, and Ryo Kase makes a case for being one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood as he has to speak five different languages in one minute.
The writing of Anthony Weintraub and Paul Weitz (also the director) loses its own messages again and again, changing focuses far more often than it should. If it chose one of its story beats and stuck with it throughout (the Stockholm Syndrome affair! Moore teaching an insurgent to sing! A heavily targeted metaphor about learning chess! Language barriers!) than the movie would likely be better. Each element works really well at the moment but brought together it is too hodgepodgey as a movie. The score is too heavy, the pacing is haphazard, the plot feels like it doesn’t even know its own story. It is just too much movie for its own good.
Weitz (a master of emotional manipulation) builds a movie that is exactly the sum of its parts: fine. Everything about the movie is just fine, slipping out of my own head hours after I have watched the movie. While the performances will stick with you (and Renee Fleming’s voice is enough to make buying the album worth it), the movie doesn’t justify the work that went into it. Read the book instead, or just dig deeper into the actual history. The true story is far more relevant to the modern world than this movie could ever hope to be.
‘Bel Canto’ is in select theaters now, and will be available for streaming on September 21st