In 1996, rebel insurgents in the city of Lima, Peru stormed a government building taking hundreds of guests - mostly ambassadors, government officials and business executives, hostage. While female captives were released after five days, the remaining hostages were imprisoned for 126 days. This real-life event inspired Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel ‘Bel Canto’ – except that in her fictionalised version, Patchett has added the presence of an opera singer and set the tale in an unnamed South American city.
It is the opera singer, Roxane Coss, who forms the heart of the story and is deftly played by Julianne Moore in the cinematic adaptation of Patchett’s novel. Other than a few omissions here and there in order to fit a 100-minute running time, Bel Canto (the movie) remains largely truthful to the book. While the political reasons for the insurgents to storm the building and take hostages isn’t fully explored cinematically, what is, are the various relationships that form within the building.
Gen (Ryo Kase) who works as a translator for Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) is soon corralled to perform translation services for the generals leading the insurgents. They get him to translate their list of demands to the Red Cross staffer (Sebastian Koch) who has been picked to be the go-between for the army and the militia. While performing his services for them, Gen’s eye is caught by a female rebel, Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) who he ends up teaching English to in secret.
Meanwhile Gen’s employer, Hosokawa is riddled with guilt, blaming himself for landing everyone in such a situation. After all, the whole event had been arranged for Hosokawa so he could be coerced into building a factory in a city very much in need of an economic boost. Roxane Coss was especially flown over to give a private performance because she was Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer.
It is while expressing his guilt to Coss, with the help of Gen’s translation services, that the businessman and opera singer begin to form a close relationship. Despite the language barrier, Coss and Hosokawa find ways to communicate and become inseparable.
This is a cross-cultural drama and a number of languages are spoken, aided by subtitles on screen or the subtle utterances of Gen to help translate for English-speaking audiences. The romances that develop span cultures too, as hostages and rebels alike find private moments of passion. But as we watch there is a growing sense that not all is going to turn out alright for everyone involved.
While initially being angry and appalled by the insurgents, as the days drag by the hostages begin to find themselves drawn to their captors, especially as most of the rebels are very young, being in their teens and early 20s. The French ambassador teaches them how to work the TV set, other hostages teach the young rebels how to cook fancy meals in the kitchen and Coss herself begins to tutor one of the rebel boys to sing opera.
The scene where both hostages and kidnappers sit down to a candlelit meal together underlines how class barriers have been broken. It doesn’t matter where you came from, director Paul Weitz seems to be saying, at the end of the day it is our humanity that bonds us.
A two-sided ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ takes over and both captors and hostages alike begin to imagine a life where they spend the rest of their lives inside the building where they are held. Meanwhile trouble is brewing outside the walls of the compound, as the military that has watched the hostage situation drag on for far too long starts to get impatient.
Opera is known for its tragic endings, so it makes sense for something similar to occur in this instance, with the hypnotic and languid pace of life within the house leading to a shocking and brutal finale in the film.
Bel Canto manages to squeeze a lot into a fairly short film, trying its best to depict as much of Patchett’s novel as possible on the screen. Where the novel and the film diverge is at the very end, however this doesn’t detract from the intention and overall message of the work.
What the film does, however, is to bring a touch of sympathy to a group of people labelled as ‘terrorists’ by some. It shows us that no matter where you come from, whether you are a high-flying Ambassador, or a child plucked from a village in the forest to fight for rebel forces, what eventually binds us is the compassion we share for one another. And ultimately, any political, economic or class barriers can be overcome given the right, or in this case, wrong, conditions.
Bel Canto is now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, Thriller
Language: English, Spanish, French, Japanese
Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Noe Hernández, Johnny Ortiz, María Mercedes Coroy, Eddie Martinez, Christopher Lambert, Olek Krupa, Jay Santiago, Thorbjørn Harr, Eliud Kauffman, Nico Bustamante, Melissa Navia, Elsa Zylberstein, Phil Nee, Ignacio Torre