‘Bel Canto’ Treats Latin America as an Exotic Backdrop, Not a Real Place

Ann Patchett’s novel is based on recent Peruvian history. So why do both book and film insist on a vague, unspecified setting?

When I first watched the trailer for Bel Canto, I asked out loud (by which I mean, I tweeted) whether anyone knew if Anne Patchett’s “unspecified South American country” had been specified for the film version. Surely, I mused, the filmmakers wouldn’t dare set this hostage narrative in a nondescript Latin American nation — not when it was so obviously based on the 1996 “Lima Crisis” that took place at the Japanese ambassador’s house in Peru. Patchett had gotten away with nodding to her real-life inspiration while leaving her novel devoid of geographical specifics; it’s all “the host country” this and “this godforsaken country” that. But in a film, where you can see the setting, surely they’d have more respect for both the audience and Peruvian history. After catching the film for myself, however, I can confirm that Chris Weitz’s adaptation is as uninterested in Peru as Patchett was. The film of Bel Canto joins the novel in a long line of U.S. cultural objects that treat South America more as a colorful and exotic (not to mention dangerous) image of a place than a real-life location.

Bel Canto imagines a scenario very much like the real Lima Crisis, a 1996 hostage situation wherein fourteen members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took over the residence of the Japanese ambassador for more than 120 days, but puts a fictional opera singer at the center. Roxane Coss (played in the film by Julianne Moore, who lip syncs to recordings by Renée Fleming) has been invited to sing for Mr. Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) on his birthday. The Japanese businessman has been lured to “the host country” with the promise of seeing the famous soprano, because the president hopes to convince him to build some factories that would jumpstart the country’s failing economy. After Coss sings her beautiful arias, a group of armed revolutionaries take over hoping to hold the President for ransom. They’re unaware that President Matsuda (an obvious nod to then-Peruvian President Fujimori, who was of Japanese descent) is not even present for the performance, having canceled his appearance at the last minute.

Bel Canto joins a long line of U.S. cultural objects that treat South America more as a colorful and exotic (not to mention dangerous) image of a place than a real-life location.

Just as in real life, all the women are released — except for Ms. Coss, who’s just too beguiling and who the revolutionaries know is their main chance at leveraging a better deal. In the weeks that follow, and as negotiations prove more and more futile, her singing proves to be the soothing balm these otherwise violent terrorists require to see the finer things in life. She helps make their months-long ordeal a kind of utopian enclave where French ambassadors cook alongside young girl guerrillas, where a Japanese translator helps set up a daily chess match, where Russian businessmen fall for the soprano (who in turn becomes enamored with Mr. Hosokawa), and where kidnappers and kidnapped learn to live amicably before real life comes crashing into them staging a climactic finale worthy of one of the operas Coss sings so beautifully.

By Patchett’s own admission, her interest in the Lima Crisis stemmed mostly from its operatic plotline. Apart from the obvious source material, there’s nothing about Bel Canto that requires it to be set in Peru. Give or take a few cultural markers, the book could’ve taken place anywhere. All of the action takes place in the Vice President’s mansion-like house which is surrounded by a large wall that further isolates those inside. Her characters may spend a lot of time looking out the windows, but there was little they could see. “They could have been in London or Paris or New York or Tokyo,” her narrator tells us. “They could have been looking at a field of blue-tipped grass or a gridlock of traffic. They couldn’t see. No defining hints of culture or local color. They could have been any place where the weather was capable of staying bad for indeterminate amounts of time.” With such caveats baked into her prose, it was no surprise to find Patchett being candid about how, as she put it in an interview that bookends my edition of Bel Canto, the novel “is not an especially bold or insightful rendering of South America. It’s about a living room in South America.”

South American Women Authors the U.S. Has Overlooked

Both excuse and disclaimer, Patchett’s assertion doesn’t explain why her attentive renderings of Russian businessmen, Japanese translators, French ambassadors, and Dutch Red Cross volunteers stand in stark contrast with her bare-bones sketch of this “host country” and its revolutionaries. Then again, this type of broad-strokes portrait of Latin America is nothing new. Whether you’ve seen the poor sense of Colombian geography that anchors the drug kidnapping romcom Romancing the Stone, the murky politics of the kidnapping drama Proof of Life (set in the fictional “Tecala” country), the soundstage-created images of South American jungles in B-movies such as The Tiger Woman, or even sobbed your way through the brightly-colored vistas of Pixar’s Up, you’ve no doubt come across the hackneyed ideas of the region that Hollywood depends on. Everywhere south of the border (and particularly below Panama) is, in the U.S. cultural imaginary, all jungle and violence. Moreover, as even these brief but telling examples suggest, South America is a Manic Pixie Dream Continent, a mere backdrop for foreign nationals who end up finding themselves, or love, or perhaps both as in Bel Canto, while abroad.

Weitz’s adaptation muddles rather than clarifies Patchett’s nondescript location. His establishing shots may favor images of slum-ridden mountains, but at least the flag his revolutionaries fly looks like the Peruvian one. But on casting alone (and given his decision to shoot in Mexico City, inserting even a brief scene where a Red Cross worker visits the famed Mayan pyramids in its outskirts) he shows himself mostly uninterested in offering any kind of cohesive vision of any one Latin American country, as if they all could be blurred into one imagined nation. What emerges instead is a hodge-podge of a national portrait, with actors from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and the U.S. filling roles from the “host country.” Their disparate dialects and accents stress (for Spanish-speakers, at least) how the film production didn’t even aim for any kind of authenticity. Father Arguedas, a priest who stays behind even after being asked to leave, is played by Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, whose mastery of Spanish is enough to fool those who just read subtitles but which clearly sounds clipped for those of us with an ear for it. Some revolutionaries, like Carmen (played by María Mercedes Coroy, so wonderful in Guatemala’s Ixcanul) clearly gesture to indigenous communities who speak little Spanish. And others still, like Comandante Benjamin (played by Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta), sound like they’re characters straight out of a Mexican telenovela — an underling of his uses the Mexican slang “güey,” a moment that had me cringing for the way it seemed both gesture to and otherwise ignore its own cultural specificity.

South America is a Manic Pixie Dream Continent, a mere backdrop for foreign nationals who end up finding themselves, or love, while abroad.

And speaking of telenovelas, that is where Patchett’s painful indifference to the country she’s decided to represent in the pages of her novel makes itself most known. The reason why President Matsuda opts to not attend the evening dinner with Ms Coss and Mr Hosokawa, we learn, is because he’s obsessed with a telenovela (the Thalía-starring vehicle Maria la del Barrio, as we’re shown in the film). In Patchett’s telling, these soaps air daily during the daytime with one weekly primetime summary episode, which is the one President Matsuda refuses to miss and which prompts him to skip out on the dinner that kickstarts the novel’s plot. It’s arguably a small (if crucial) detail, but this is very much a U.S.-centric vision of soap operas. Telenovelas, especially successful ones like Maria la del Barrio, aired nightly. (I have all-too-vivid memories of teenage tantrums I staged when it became obvious I wouldn’t make it back in time for my prime time soaps on any given weekday.)

Like every other attempt at using South American culture to color this story, Bel Canto cannot help but see its chosen setting as anything more than window dressing. What better way to account for a president’s vanity than have him be obsessed with telenovelas? What easier way to show oneself oblivious to their own cultural production than think telenovelas are strictly a daytime activity? This “host country” remains just a sketch beyond the windows of Patchett’s imagined living room. It’s a beautiful painted backdrop as broad and colorful as the kind that would adorn an opera stage.

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