Starring Julianne Moore. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
The same week that brings us Maria by Callas also offers up another heroic soprano, although here, Renée Fleming’s voice is heard emerging from the rubied lips of Julianne Moore. The transference happens because La Moore, excellent as usual, plays Roxane Coss, an opera star who’s been invited to perform—for an extravagant fee—for the ruling class of an unspecified Latin American country, where insurgents are locked in a long-running battle with the local oligarchy.
It’s actually Peru, with the events in Bel Canto, as in the Ann Patchett book it’s based on, loosely related to something that happened in late 1996, when Túpac Amaru rebels stormed the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima. The Japanese connection to Peru is an odd one, because Peru’s best-known president, Alberto Fujimori, fled to his parents’ homeland in 2000, when facing charges for massive corruption and human-rights abuses. (He finally ended up in prison and has created a small dynasty in the impoverished nation.)
Here, the fictional president is supposed to attend a big dinner party at the palatial home of his vice president (J. Eddie Martinez). The latter’s not the only one disappointed when the boss fails to show up. Also in attendance will be Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (The Last Samurai’s Ken Watanabe), who might build a factory there, but is really just flying in to enjoy a private concert by his idol, the aforementioned diva. Having brought his translator (Mozart in the Jungle’s Ryo Kase) allows all the participants to speak their own languages, as well as ours.
This is quite a change of pace for director Paul Weitz, who helped make Mozart and was previously best known for the already contrasting one-two punch of American Pie and About a Boy. Weitz and screenwriter Anthony Weintraub do a number of difficult things well, especially when it comes to sympathetically individuating the revolutionaries, led by bearded Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta, likewise of Mozart), who show up uninvited. They start with some fireworks, but also become opera buffs, of a sort.
The film is more slapdash with the resulting hostages and their sometimes preposterous relationships over the vaguely defined passage of time. (The real event lasted four months.) We only really get to know the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert) and a few others, plus the Swiss go-between (Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others) who helps negotiate terms in the ensuing standoff.
The pace is a bit sluggish, and the fact that Moore clearly isn’t really singing throws a moist towelette on the message: that direct expressions of humanity can indeed soothe the savage breast. Still, Bel Canto builds to an emotional finish that, if not quite La Traviata, certainly connects with the bizarre soap opera that politics have become in this century.