Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub’s screen adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto deftly weaves romance into a taut hostage drama. Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore), an international opera star (vocals courtesy of Renée Fleming) has been asked to sing at a diplomats’ dinner in an unnamed South American country.
The evening is in honour of a Japanese industrialist, Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), who has long admired Coss. They are abruptly thrown together when the mansion is overrun by insurgents, hoping to confront their country’s president. When the rebels discover he has declined the dinner invitation, in order to watch his favourite telenovela, they decide to take the men and Roxane hostage. Their demand is simple: the release of all political prisoners.
A tense standoff ensues. Sebastian Koch plays a member of the Red Cross who ineffectually tries to negotiate the release of the hostages. The resulting stalemate leaves the rebels in despair while the hostages while away their hours playing chess or cards. As Roxanne and Hosokawa’s friendship blossoms and the outside world recedes, they begin to question themselves and their values. The rebel leader (Tenoch Huerta), a former teacher, becomes increasingly depressed at the lack of media interest in their cause. The dignitaries gradually befriend the insurgents, some of whom are only teenagers and keen to exploit the opportunities that are suddenly on offer. One young rebel wants to sing like Roxanne, who delightedly takes on his tuition, while Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy) is eager to learn English.
Despite poor lip-synching, Moore is perfectly cast as the diva and delivers a captivating performance. The international supporting cast also impresses. As the hostages patiently wait for their release, they begin to relax and evidently cannot imagine an adverse outcome to their predicament. Weitz emphasises the subtle shifts in power between the characters, underscoring their shared humanity. A drained swimming pool, where the rebel leaders meet, reminds us of the inequality they are fighting against. Gen (Ryo Kase), Hosokawa’s shy translator, undergoes a poignant rite of passage. He falls for Carmen, as well as gaining a new level of self-respect when he finds his skills are frequently in demand by both the hostages and the rebels. We too rely on Gen’s verbal translations, rather than subtitles.
There are moments in Bel Canto that stretch credibility but the tension never lets up. It takes time to buy into the story (inspired by a real hostage attack in Peru) but, as Weitz immerses us in the drama, together with the captives, we begin to sympathise with the rebels and their cause. Operas inevitably end in tragedy, as do most hostage sieges, so we quickly recognise that Bel Canto’s ending is unlikely to be happy. However, the inhabitants of the mansion clearly do not and therein lies the power of Weitz’s closing frames.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop