The transcendent and unifying power of music has inspired any number of movies, but “Bel Canto” might be the first to involve a hostage crisis. The adaptation of Ann Patchett’s award-winning 2001 bestseller is based on real events in Peru in 1996, when rebels from the leftist Túpac Amaru movement raided a party at the Japanese ambassador’s residence and took hundreds of civilians hostage.
Like the novel, the film is set in an unnamed South American nation, where the famous American opera singer Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) has been invited to perform at a private gathering at the home of the vice president. The guest of honor is Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a leading Japanese industrialist who is being courted in the hope that he’ll build a factory in the developing country, and who has long admired the singer.
The insurgents who storm the mansion quickly discover that their target, the president, had skipped the event at the last minute, leaving them stuck with an international crowd of diplomats and businesspeople. They soon release the women — except for Roxane, their highest-value captive. The impasse drags on for months, during which time a Red Cross staffer (Sebastian Koch) determinedly attempts to negotiate between the rebels and the government, while Hosokawa’s multilingual personal translator, Gen (Ryo Kase), becomes an interpreter for practically everyone.
Despite some trimming of plot and characters, the narrative closely follows that of the book. The ensemble cast features strong performances from Moore, Watanabe and Koch, as well as Tenoch Huerta and Maria Mercedes Coroy as members of the rebel group.
The film empathetically shows its characters’ humanity and the unlikely relationships that develop between captor and captive, as political, linguistic and socioeconomic barriers break down amid their close quarters and shared awe for the music. The story slowly builds toward the crushing reality of its brutal resolution — you know all along that it can’t end well.
And yet something seems to have been lost in the translation of Patchett’s luminous prose to the screen. Where the novel’s omniscient narrator provides ample insight into its protagonists’ interior thoughts and backstories, much of that is missing here: Some characters, particularly Gen, come across as flat, their motivations not deeply explored or explained. Romantic episodes that should burst with dramatic tension feel muted, lacking real chemistry or passion.
None of that is helped by an overly distracting score that, during the non-opera scenes, doesn’t strike an appropriate mood for some of the moments it’s paired with.
The dialogue is also inaccessible or cumbersome at times. Director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) sought to maintain authenticity — and an important premise of the novel — by not having all the characters speak English. There are frequent exchanges in other languages, as when Gen and Hosokawa communicate in Japanese, or the rebels speak Spanish. But some lines are not subtitled, making for a sometimes confusing viewing experience.
World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming wonderfully voices Roxane’s singing, with Moore convincingly embodying music’s great capacity to bring people together. But although the story itself is worthy of an opera plot — and, in fact, was adapted for that genre — one wishes the staging was more consistently gripping.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains scenes of violence. In English, Spanish, French, Japanese and other languages with subtitles. 100 minutes.