“Bel Canto” is a movie holding its breath. At least, that’s how it feels for much of its running time, as its multinational characters wander sedately around an ornate mansion (played by a house in Yonkers, N.Y.) belonging to the vice president of an unnamed South American country.
The glamorous crowd has gathered for a private performance by the celebrated soprano Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore), an event intended as a lure for her superfan Hosokawa (the wonderful Ken Watanabe), a wealthy Japanese industrialist and hoped-for investor in the country’s development plans. But barely have the guests sampled the canapés and the opening notes of her aria than a guerrilla group arrives to take them hostage and demand the release of its imprisoned comrades.
This brief flurry of action settles all too soon into a lengthy state of siege as guests and rebels mingle uneasily and negotiations are conducted almost entirely off camera. A Red Cross intermediary (Sebastian Koch) flits in and out to remind us there’s life beyond the compound, but otherwise there’s little sense of time passing or international outrage. If the Americans and Japanese are concerned about their trapped V.I.P.s, you’d never know it.
And there’s the rub: “Bel Canto” is so dismissive of the outside world — and the background of its guerrilla leader (Tenoch Huerta, making much of the little he’s given) — that it’s politically and ideologically barren. Only one idea interests the director, Paul Weitz (adapting Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel with Anthony Weintraub): the power of music to transcend difference and locate our common humanity. This single, overarching theme welds us to Coss, whose voice (or, rather, Renée Fleming’s) seduces Hosokawa and persuades the authorities to restore water to the mansion. For this, the rebels reward her with a private room and luxury bedding — both of which will come in handy when she and Hosokawa inevitably become intimate.
Graciously regal and warmly expressive, Moore makes a credible diva, but neither the foregrounded love affair nor its lower-class counterpart — a sweet connection between a young rebel (a fine María Mercedes Coroy) and Hosokawa’s translator (Ryo Kase) — has the heft to resonate. The result is a movie that, for all its operatic allusions and actorly expertise, feels dismayingly passionless.
At times, in the shifting ground between the hostages and their captors, we can feel Weitz reaching for something akin to what Bruno Barreto achieved with his 1998 drama “Four Days in September,” a subtle probe of the dynamics of bargaining and coercion, privilege and powerlessness. But “Bel Canto,” handsomely photographed by Tobias Datum, is a movie wavering among identities. Neither romance nor hostage drama nor political thriller, it never builds a head of steam. Unlike a real opera singer, it doesn’t know how to exhale.