Can music’s charms soothe a savage breast?

Can music’s charms soothe a savage breast? Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe in Bel Canto


Julianne Moore may not be Maria Callas in the singing department but she’s no slouch as an actress. In this ambitious adaptation of Ann Patchett’s acclaimed novel of the same name she plays soprano Roxane Coss.

She’s interrupted in the middle of a private concert she’s giving to international dignitaries in a palace in an unnamed Latin American country in the late 1990s. A gang of left wing guerrillas led by the fiery Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) storm the building.

They expect their president to be in attendance but he isn’t. They demand he release a number of political prisoners. The staff of the palace are held hostage, as well as Coss and some of the other people at the concert.

The tension is ramped up when one of them is accidentally killed. A month-long stand-off develops. Soldiers surround the building. Tensions mount when the water supply is cut off. But relationships start to develop within the palace.

Chief among these are that between a translator played by Royo Kase and one of the guerrillas, Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy). Coss becomes intimate with a Japanese industrialist, Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). He has attended the concert due to his obsession with her. He gains entry as a result of a false promise to build a factory in the country.

Christopher Lambert plays a French ambassador. A UN negotiator tries to defuse the situation but he doesn’t get anywhere.

The film becomes interesting – some would say ludicrous – when Coss is persuaded to go out on a balcony and sing to the soldiers outside. It’s hoped her mellifluous tones will soften their attitude and break the deadlock. And so it comes to pass. Everyone is transfixed by her voice. The tension evaporates.

It isn’t Moore’s own voice. She lip-syncs effectively to that of real life American soprano Renée Fleming. The title of the film translates as ‘Beautiful singing’. It certainly is that. You’ll feel the hairs stand out on the back of your neck as her plaintive strains echo through the air.


The transformative power of music is the basic message of this beguiling film. It was inspired by an actual incident in Lima, Peru. Director Paul Weitz uses artistic licence to lift it onto another level.

Weitz is more familiar with lightweight vehicles like About a Boy and American Pie. At times he seems to be punching above his weight. He gives us a new spin on the Stockholm syndrome but many of the relationships inside the palace develop too fast  (and too incredibly) for comfort.

He uses a plethora of different languages to tell his story. For some people it will all seem too far-fetched, for others cathartic. There are also longueurs. But his intentions are honourable. The (tragic) ending is very effective.

The ensemble playing of the multi-ethnic cast makes one suspend disbelief in a scenario that, in another director’s hands, might well have come across as risible.

Very Good ****