Bel Canto is set in an unnamed Latin American nation in the late 90s, as guerrilla fighters storm an ambassador’s residence, taking a Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe) and an American opera singer (Julianne Moore, singing with the voice of Renée Fleming) hostage along with the staff and a handful of dignitaries. They had hoped to seize the nation’s president, but he didn’t show – and now that they’ve taken hostages, they can’t just leave.

A UN negotiator (Sebastian Koch) convinces the government to let him try to defuse the situation. As hours stretch into days, the captors and captives alike find themselves trapped with one another in a strange détente. 

Adapting Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel (which was inspired by an actual incident in Peru), director Paul Weitz – who co-wrote the script with producer Anthony Weintraub – plays up the absurdity of the situation, juggling scenes in a multiplicity of languages as people struggle to make themselves understood to one another in order to prevent misunderstandings from escalating into violence. 

Meanwhile, Moore and Watanabe conjure a mature, simpatico understanding that makes their characters’ dialogue – rendered through an interpreter played by Ryo Kase – seem almost unnecessary.

The midsection gets a little static, and viewers may be inclined to share the frustration of Koch’s negotiator at the lack of progress. We’re just left to sit and stew with everyone as they rehash the same ideological arguments about power, violence and morality. 

That is, of course, a necessary evil for this kind of story. Stick with Bel Canto, even through the sluggish parts, and you’ll find it knows exactly what it’s doing.

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