Bel Canto: Middling Drama Elevated by Opera But Leaves Us Wanting More

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B-

When Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe look back on Bel Canto, they may regard it as a strange career blip. It’s certainly not their worst movie, but it’s also far from their best and a textbook example of constituent parts being compelling but never amounting to much. It’d be interesting to know how the script read to them, whether they knew the source material by novelist Ann Patchett, and why they were motivated to do it.

 Love blooms in the strangest places…

Love blooms in the strangest places…

Moore is Roxanne Coss, the bel canto of the title, a famous opera singer brought into South America (presumably Peru) for a corporate gig. Also present is doe-eyed Japanese businessman Hosokawa (Watanabe) and his multilingual interpreter Gen (Ryo Kase), hoping to close a deal.

As it happens, Hosokawa is a mega-fan of Coss’s and her presence at the stately vice presidential residence is exciting enough that he can overlook the fact that the country’s president has skipped the reception, apparently to watch TV. Coss barely delivers her first bar before the lights cut and armed guerillas invade the house, in a bid to seize the missing president.

Soon, a negotiator is on-site but the rebels are in it for the long haul, declaring the guests as hostages until their demands for the release of prisoners are met. The women are released, but not Coss who is recognized as a bargaining chip. She is given better lodgings than the rest of the crew — which includes piano-playing French Ambassador Christopher Lambert among the gathered politicos and VIPs — but within a half hour we are engulfed in a hostage scenario unfolding in three languages.

And then Bel Canto shifts into a kind of weird romance-cum-social critique. Passion blooms between Coss and Hosokawa and the interpreter and one of the rebels. In what appears to be a case of Stockholm syndrome, the hostages become friendly and sympathetic with their captors; Coss offers singing lessons to one. The film’s set piece, such as it is, features Coss outdoors on a balcony delivering a plaintive aria to the assembled throng of media and spectators as a reminder of… um… the inherent kindness and humanity that lurks within us all and can be unlocked by song?

Throughout Bel Canto, I found myself much more interested in the back stories of the secondary characters, particularly the rebels. We get some exposition but nothing deeply rewarding. Plus, the would-be affair between the Japanese interpreter and his illiterate yet clearly clever paramour (who we discover can suture a wound on the spot) seems much more electric than the romance between Coss and Hosokawa. But naturally, the marquee stars get grander play.

The singing — courtesy real-life superstar soprano Renée Fleming — is exquisite and serves as an effective counter to the depressingly familiar oppression these clear-eyed rebels are rising against. Ultimately though, I just wasn’t engaged enough with these people to feel anything but relief when the film was over.

Bel Canto. Directed by Paul Weitz. Starring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe. Opens October 26 in Toronto, Kelowna, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon; November 1 through 4 in Vancouver; and November 9 through 14 in Ottawa.