The New Movie Adaptation of Bel Canto Squanders a Fascinating Story and Julianne Moore

You may find yourself begging for the fat lady to sing.

In a scene from Bel Canto, Katsumi Hosokawa, played by Ken Watanabe, and Roxane Coss, played by Julianne Moore, sit at the piano in a richly decorated parlor. Chairs are piled against the window on the left.
Ken Watanabe and Julianne Moore in Bel Canto.
Screen Media Films

In 1996, members of the radical Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement stormed into the Japanese ambassador’s home in Lima, Peru, and took the guests, attending a party in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s birthday, as their prisoners. The Japanese embassy hostage crisis, as it came to be called, lasted four months before it ended with a government raid that left all of the militants dead (and one of the hostages, too). So cinematic was the incident that it later became the inspiration for Ann Patchett’s greatest novel, Bel Canto, which has now, in turn, inspired a film adaptation directed and co-written by Paul Weitz, best known for his work on About a Boy and Mozart in the Jungle. The details of the fictional crisis deviate somewhat from its real-life counterpart—the setting is never specified beyond an unnamed country in Latin America, and the takeover happens during a party at a vice president’s house rather than an ambassador’s—but there is a fundamental curiosity that underlies both: How can two such different groups of people, captives and captors, coexist in a small space for months at a time?

In the film, on the side of the captives, we have Ken Watanabe as the party’s guest of honor, the beatific Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese manufacturer ostensibly visiting the country to scope out sites for a potential factory. He has no intention of doing so, however, and has only been lured so far from Tokyo by the promise of a private concert by his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, played by Julianne Moore not with the flamboyance of a diva but with the can-I-speak-to-the-manager imperiousness of an American tourist. It’s while Moore is performing—i.e., mouthing along rather unconvincingly to vocals provided by famed soprano Renée Fleming—that the party is crashed by freedom fighters, led by Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), a sensitive teacher-turned-revolutionary, whose wife is being held in one of the government’s “illegal jails.”

The freedom fighters are there to take the president of the country hostage, but alas, he skipped the party, preferring to stay home and watch his soap opera. (Who among us … ?) The guerrillas, empty-handed and cut off from escape once the police and military arrive, make the best of their unintended hostages, but while there is plenty of talk of freeing “the people,” Weitz is not interested in politics, just relationships. These form, as they do in the novel, like cobwebs, gradually and inevitably, during the long and often boring days trapped in the house. The French ambassador becomes a father figure to a hotheaded young rebel who is evidence of why hormones and firearms should not mix; the vice president, with a newfound talent for housekeeping, promises a shy recruit, whose gun is almost as tall as he is, a job once the ordeal is over; and the Red Cross negotiator develops a kind of begrudging affection for Benjamin. Hosokawa and Roxane get together, of course, and there is a secondary romance between freedom fighter Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy), who wants to learn how to read, and Hosokawa’s translator Gen (Ryo Kase), who is willing to teach her.

If any of the above sounds remotely interesting, you should go read Bel Canto, because Weitz’s version does the plot no favors, flat and detached as it is. Patchett’s novel was deliberately written as a melodrama, using flashbacks and asides to create an atmosphere that has been compared to magical realism. Weitz, meanwhile, can’t decide whether the movie should be a political thriller, a relationship drama, or something else entirely, as the actors trudge through expository dialogue with the directness of opera lyrics but without any of the emotion behind them. The stakes throughout feel oddly low—I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that one of the hostages, Roxane’s pianist, is accidentally shot early in the film, given that it was a key moment in the trailer. That’s a deviation from Patchett’s novel, in which the man, a somewhat ridiculous, lovestruck figure, simply dies because he’d rather be with his unrequited love than take his insulin shot. And yet despite making a substantial alteration to the plot, Weitz never really does anything with it: The pianist, already barely known, is so easily forgotten that when his killer later mutters, “I’m sorry,” it’s hard to remember what he’s apologizing for.

The dead pianist is certainly not on anyone’s mind at the end of the movie, after the characters have settled into a kind of domestic bliss, with the perk of daily opera concerts, despite warnings from the negotiator that the situation cannot go on. As the movie marches toward its inevitable, gruesome conclusion, the only one inside with any sense of what’s to come is Gen, whom another movie might have singled out as protagonist instead of allowing him to fade into the ensemble. Gen is, in many ways, a stand-in for the audience, and not just because he translates Spanish and Japanese for English speakers. When Carmen remarks that their unusual circumstance—terrorists and hostages living together—is the new normal, Gen responds that it’s “not forever.” By the time the credits roll, we’re grateful that’s true.

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