Bel Canto

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - The Lives of Oth­ers)

The open­ing setup for Paul Weitz’s adap­ta­tion of the Ann Patch­ett best­seller takes place at a lav­ish din­ner party thrown for the pres­i­dent of an un­named South Amer­i­can coun­try (think Peru). The af­ter-din­ner en­ter­tain­ment is Rox­ane Coss ( Ju­lianne Moore), an in­ter­na­tion­ally cel­e­brated op­er­atic so­prano (think Renée Flem­ing, who sup­plies the voice). The guests are a glit­ter­ing assembly of politi­cians, diplo­mats, and busi­ness heav­ies, in­clud­ing Kat­sumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Ja­panese in­dus­tri­al­ist who may have plans to build a fac­tory in the coun­try.

This din­ner of­fers some­thing of a metaphor for the movie. The set­ting is hand­some, the sur­round­ings op­u­lent, the guests A-list, the sil­ver and crys­tal sparkling. It’s all so el­e­gant and beau­ti­fully ren­dered that you hardly no­tice when the food ar­rives that it’s a bit dis­ap­point­ing.

We don’t re­ally know how good the food is at this ban­quet. But in any case, more vex­ing prob­lems arise. As Rox­ane is war­bling a post-pran­dial aria, a bunch of masked, gun-wield­ing guer­ril­las break into the man­sion and take ev­ery­body hostage — and don’t you hate it when that hap­pens?

They de­mand the re­lease of all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. They’re ac­tu­ally af­ter Pres­i­dent Ma­suda (Phil Nee), but he’s not there, hav­ing begged off at the last minute. This is very up­set­ting to the ter­ror­ists, but they de­cide their next best bar­gain­ing chip is Rox­ane, whose voice they fig­ure will melt the hearts of the au­thor­i­ties if they trot her out onto the bal­cony and get her to sing. So they let the rest of the women guests go, but keep her be­hind.

They are an ide­al­is­tic bunch of rebels, and they have un­der­es­ti­mated the hard­ness of the au­thor­i­ties’ hearts. The sing­ing ploy doesn’t work. The hostage cri­sis drags on for days, weeks (the story was in­spired by the Ja­panese Em­bassy hostage cri­sis that took place in Lima from De­cem­ber 1996 to April 1997).

Sub­plots thicken, and ro­mances blos­som, in­clud­ing one be­tween Rox­ane and Hosokawa, re­mind­ing us that af­ter all, it’s only a movie. Ne­go­ti­a­tions, han­dled by a coura­geous Red Cross ne­go­tia­tor (an ex­cel­lent Se­bas­tian Koch, de­velop and fal­ter. We come to see the strengths and weak­nesses of cap­tors and cap­tives, and we are shown the un­der­ly­ing hu­man­ity of these gun-tot­ing ter­ror­ists, but we can never for­get that their up­per hand is based on their will­ing­ness to slaugh­ter in­no­cent peo­ple to achieve their goals.

The more hu­man and friendly and sym­pa­thetic and jolly ev­ery­one gets, the more cer­tain we be­come that this is a stand­off that can­not end well.

— Jonathan Richards

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