In the information age, checking your social media feed can feel like getting overtaken by a tsunami of photos, facts, and figures. There’s too much data to stay on top of so we often oversimplify complex ideas into digestible little bits. The problem is, this tactic doesn’t lend itself to nuanced thinking. Director Paul Weitz’ film Bel Canto won’t let his audience’s mental muscles atrophy. By daring to ask questions with no easy answers, Weitz’ emotional thriller has no place for black and white thinking.
Bel Canto is based on American author Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel (which was inspired by an actual event in Peru). The story takes place in an unnamed Latin American country and sees a squad of guerrilla rebels invade an ambassador’s home during a swanky gathering attended by influential guests. They want to capture the country’s president and hold him hostage until the government meets their demands – the release of political prisoners.
The president never makes it to the event, but there’s no shortage of important people in attendance. Among them is wealthy Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), his interpreter (Ryo Kase), and renowned opera singer Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore). The UN sends in a veteran negotiator (Sebastian Koch) to resolve the situation, but he doesn’t make any headway, and the hostages stay trapped in the ambassador’s home for weeks. As the ordeal carries on, both sides start lowering their defences and forming unlikely bonds.
Bel Canto has no interest in becoming The Negotiator or Inside Man. The central tension between the captors and the government falls to the background as the film shifts its focus to the prisoners and their relationships to one another. Weitz slows down the pace and really zigs where you expect a movie like this to zag. The hostages consist of people from all over the world who speak different languages – it’s a real tower of Babel situation. The film takes its time following the hostages and their captors as they feel each other out and slowly learn how to communicate.
While never dull, Bel Canto putters along through its second act, and it’s here where it threatens to lose most viewers. This is a big picture film, more concerned about walloping audiences with its broader message than entertaining with compelling characters and snappy dialogue along the way. Moore and Watanabe are their usual charming selves, but this film has no interest in creating relatable, three-dimensional people. Instead, the cast is like chess pieces arranged on the board to lure the audience into a devastating emotional trap.
By the third act, Bel Canto dances right up to the edge of ridiculous, as captors and captives join each other for candle-lit dinners, secret trysts, and even soccer matches. But by this point, you can forgive these broad narrative gestures since you’ve likely figured out this filmmaker’s endgame. Weitz doesn’t populate the film with deep, fleshed out characters, but they do express just enough humanity, on both sides, for us to buy into their improbable bonds.
This picture works as a cinematic Rorschach test. Given the stark lines between today’s social politics, it’s fascinating seeing victim and victimizer, captors and captives, transcend their circumstances and connect on a higher level. It’s easy to label our “enemies” as assholes when we only see them as Twitter avatars or the boogeymen showing up in Fox News profiles. It’s almost impossible to face someone every day and not find some type of common ground, and this film presents the most exaggerated version of this idealization. Buying into Bel Canto’s vision or dismissing it outright speaks to one’s capacity for empathy and willingness to seek out their own moral values in the film’s murky shades of grey.