“It’s opera, so in the end everybody dies,” soprano Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore) confides off-handedly to a guest, before stepping into the drawing room of a politician’s stately home to deliver a private performance for a small gathering of global elites and a few awed waitstaff.
Death definitely comes for the low-simmering Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett’s acclaimed 2001 novel, though not in the form of conquistadors or pirates or consumption in a Paris garret. Instead it’s geopolitics: a resistance movement desperate enough to turn to militance by crashing a vice president’s party with machine guns and an impossible list of demands.
What they don’t know is that the president they’ve come to speak to isn’t even there; he’s home watching his telenovelas. Which means the only leverage they have is these lesser citizens, and as much time as it takes for the powers that be to respond.
No one is thrilled to suddenly be trapped in the dinner party from hell, least of all Roxanne. She didn’t even mean to be in this fancy house in this unnamed Latin American country in the first place; she’s only agreed to come because she’s being paid a very large fee to sing specifically for Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a Tokyo mogul the local government is hoping to woo to build a factory in their troubled city.
Director Paul Weitz is mostly known for lighter, more observational stories like About a Boy and Mozart in the Jungle, and the strongest moments in Bel Canto are the small ones. The broader situation outside the house’s walls is never explained in any real detail, mostly because it doesn’t need to be.
Instead, as captivity stretches from days into weeks, the narrative becomes about all the little human dramas happening inside: the unlikely attractions that form and the tentative gestures of friendship; the way a curious rebel lifts a bedspread to his nose to sniff the silk or a silver-haired hostage teaches one of his young captors how to get a closer shave.
Mostly, it’s a study in class acting: Moore’s Coss is a diva onstage and off, imperious but lonely; Watanabe’s Hosokawa is an old-world gentleman, smart enough to know how bad their mess is, and the part men like him play in it; Tenoch Huerta (Sin Nombre) is stubborn and soulful as the rebel leader, and Ryo Kase and Maria Mercedes Coroy, as the translator and soldier quietly building a bridge between their language barriers, are the movie’s cross-cultural Romeo and Juliet.
Nothing much happens for a long time, until it does: The lull of the middle leads to a sudden, wrenching climax before dissolving into a clumsy postscript (though to be fair, the rewrite here might be better than the left-field swerve the book takes). It’s too bad Weitz chose to keep a coda at all; in those penultimate scenes, he’s already struck Bel Canto‘s best notes. B