Film review: Bel Canto

Julianne Moore sings out in a new political drama from Paul Weitz.

Paul Weitz has led a curious career, with a huge hit right out of the gate in his 1999 directorial debut, American Pie: Though it had a smattering of heart, it mostly had pie-fucking and explaining what MILF meant. In the 20 years since, Weitz has returned to the comedy well a few times—the Chris Rock dud Down to Earth and, uh, Little Fockers—but his filmography is an otherwise varied and interesting one. There's the gentle romcom Admission with Tina Fey, the father-son drama Being Flynn, the exquisite character study Grandma starring Lily Tomlin, and most recently the award-winning series Mozart in the Jungle, a dramedy set in the New York Symphony.

Bel Canto is perhaps the most curious of all his endeavours: An effortlessly international political thriller centred around an opera singer (Julianne Moore, with vocals by Moore's bud slash famous soprano Renée Fleming). Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) is a Japanese business person obsessed with Moore's famous American opera singer Roxanne Coss; they meet a mansion in South America for what amounts to a corporate gig for her. (He's pretending t0 want to build a factory so he can see her sing.) Then some rebels, who think the president will be attending, take everyone inside hostage in an effort to force the release of their comrades. But the president isn't there, so they let all the women except the famous singer go—they know she's someone the government will want to save.

It's quickly established that though they have guns, the rebels are more of the student activist type, so as the days creep on, the hostages start to form actual friendships with them. (There's more than one inter-situation romance.) It also takes away the immediate threat of violence while letting an undercurrent run—things can change at any moment. But Weitz is most interested in the power of music, even a challenging form Coss herself points out "not everyone likes," and humanity—how does this forced-together group of people manage to find not just comfort and relief in its situation, but actual art and love and fun too? (Not to mention there are at least a half-dozen languages being spoken; luckily Katsumi's translator Gen [Ryo Kase] is with him.)

This is a slow-building drama that feels longer than its 90 minutes, but by the time the climax is set into motion you've been lulled into a sense of complacency—caught up in new and changed relationships—and its fast, violent nature hits harder than it would've otherwise. 

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