Bel Canto

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Bel Canto Movie Poster Image
Powerful drama has language, some upsetting violence.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 102 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

We all have a common humanity beneath the external layers that separate us. The captors' kindness and uniqueness is more readily accepted than in many hostage dramas because they aren't depicted as cruel or murderous. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

No villains among the main characters; whether captor, captive, or negotiator, they're portrayed as complex people with motivations and foibles. A couple of them show extraordinary courage, and several display compassion. One believably goes from hateful anger to deep empathy over the course of the film.

Violence

Guerillas carry/brandish guns and threaten hostages with them, but for much of the film, violence is limited to a pistol-whipping and an unintended fatal shooting, neither of which is depicted graphically. However, a climactic shoot-out is shown as brutal and ruthless, and because the film has effectively invested viewers in its characters, the sequence is very upsetting. A painful wound is sewn closed without anesthetic. Arguing/yelling. Tension.

Sex

Two consenting adult couples (separately) make passionate love; no nudity.

Language

"F---ing" is used a few times; also "a--hole."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Background drinking/smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Bel Canto is a powerfully emotional, moderately violent hostage drama in which captives and captors live together for months in a lavish South American home, slowly getting to know one another. It's based on Ann Patchett's award-winning novel (which was itself inspired by actual events) and has messages of courage, empathy, and shared humanity. Expect some moments of violence, including a ruthless shoot-out that will be more upsetting for its emotional impact than any of its limited blood or gore. There's also a pistol-whipping and another fatal shooting. Language isn't frequent but includes a few uses of "f---ing" and "a--hole." Two couples have sex, but nothing explicit is shown. The excellent cast includes Oscar winner Julianne Moore, Japanese superstar Ken Watanabe, German star Sebastian Koch, Christopher Lambert, and more.

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What's the story?

In BEL CANTO, guerillas storm a lush party at a South American vice president's home, taking the guests -- including Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), revered soprano Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore), and French ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) -- hostage. A Red Cross representative named Messner (Sebastian Koch) and the guerillas' thoughtful leader, Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), negotiate with the help of the industrialist's intelligent translator, Gen (Ryo Kase). As the ordeal stretches over months, the captives and captors -- including a teen fighter (María Mercedes Coroy) -- get to know one another well. The movie is based on Ann Patchett's award-winning novel, which was inspired by actual events.

Is it any good?

Unlike most hostage dramas, this film isn't about survival, cruelty, or escape; it's a powerfully moving, beautiful story about shared humanity revealed by time and close quarters. Bel Canto avoids any hint of starry-eyed Stockholm Syndrome by simply presenting its subjects as honestly human. The film allows relationships to develop realistically and  personalities to emerge organically. Director/co-adapter Paul Weitz helps himself immensely by casting such a superb ensemble. Moore is supple, as always, as she portrays Roxanne's various sides. And Watanabe is, as ever, a powerful screen presence. Lambert has perhaps his most charming role to date as Thibault. Huerta, memorably villainous in a brief appearance in Sin Nombre, slowly reveals a thoughtful humanism as the guerillas' leader. As the translator, Kase is extremely effective as both the glue of the situation and a man who finds himself unexpectedly overcome by passion. Coroy has only one other credit so far, but she delivers perhaps the most sympathetic performance in a film full of them. As young guerilla Carmen, her mix of naïveté, intelligence, and boldness breaks down the barriers between captors and captives.

Roxanne's transformation perhaps best conveys the film's meaning. Early in the ordeal, after a senseless death, she refers to her captors as "not human." But over the months of their shared ordeal, during which kindnesses are bestowed and vulnerabilities exposed, she comes to appreciate and even care for some of them. By the film's end, viewers may also have strong feelings for many of the characters. Wise and poignant, Bel Canto is a powerful film.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the theme of shared humanity in Bel Canto. People from wildly different backgrounds forget their differences during a shared trauma. Did you find that believable? Did you anticipate any obstacles?

  • Over time, we get to see what sort of people the captors are. Did you find yourself liking any of them or rooting for any of them? Did you believe the relationships they developed with certain hostages?

  • The climactic shoot-out isn't very bloody, but it comes after viewers have had a chance to come to know the characters. How did that affect its impact?

  • How do characters in the film exhibit courage and empathy? Why are those important character strengths?

Movie details

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