Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto was published to great acclaim back in 2001. Inspired by a real hostage event in Peru five years previously, the story has now been turned into a film by director Paul Weitz, perhaps best known for About a Boy.
Weitz has gathered a notably multi-cultural cast. Oscar-winner Julianne Moore plays the central character, Roxanne Coss, a famous American operatic soprano handsomely paid to perform at an embassy in an unnamed South American country before an exclusive party of VIPs. The man responsible for her appearance is wealthy Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). Invited in the hope that he will build new factories and boost the economy, Hosokawa really has no interest in investing, but attends to see his favourite singer perform.
The concert has barely begun when a band of armed guerrilla militia burst inside and take the guests hostage. It becomes clear after they pistol-whip an emissary for information that they had expected the country’s president to be there. However, he is watching his favourite soap opera. Hosts, guests and performers alike are forced to lie on the floor. Hosokawa crawls over to Coss and gallantly hands her his dinner jacket for her head. The two fall for each other, love flowering in spite of their tense predicament.
The terrorists, led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) consider themselves to be freedom fighters, aiming to force their government to free political prisoners, including Benjamin’s wife. At first, they seem totally ruthless, reneging upon their promise to release all the women made to the Swiss Red Cross negotiator, Messner (Sebastian Koch), insisting that Coss remains. She becomes a growing influence, giving a first singing lesson to a rebel fighter with operatic ambition. The diva eventually agrees to Comandante Benjamin’s request to perform for the governmental forces on the balcony (Moore lip-syncing to lyric soprano Renée Fleming). The ploy works and the singer’s reward is to be relocated to a grand upstairs bedroom.
Fundamental to the narrative are the unlikely alliances and relationships that develop between the hostages and rebels. We are shown the latter’s perspectives; they believe all of their actions are “for the people”, opposing the military dictatorship. There are moments of humour and humanity: when threatened by a militia fighter, the French Ambassador tells him he reminds him of his son at 16. On one occasion, hostages and captors are seen eating together convivially at a grand table. There is even a love affair between Hosokawa’s translator, Gen (Ryo Kase) – who crucially helps characters to communicate – and Carmen, a questioning member of the guerrilla militia. She asks the polyglot to teach her languages, leading to their secret trysts. The bloody denouement comes in the garden with the hostages and rebels playing football together like children. Ultimately, the film succeeds in eschewing clichés, throwing into sharp focus the human condition with the power of music to the fore.
Bel Canto is released nationwide on 26th April 2019.
Watch the trailer for Bel Canto here: