At a critical moment in Julianne Moore’s new film Bel Canto, which tells a beautiful tale of romance against the grim background of a hostage siege in Latin America, the negotiator shuttling between the intransigent government and the intransigent guerrillas is confronted by the rebel comandante. The negotiator had brought a megaphone to the hostage-takers, and someone had planted a listening device in it, which the compañeros had discovered, of course.
“We found this. So, what are you? Are you CIA?” They train their Kalashnikovs on the negotiator.
“What am I?” says the normally very controlled Swiss intermediary. “I’m an idiot! That’s what I am! You think I knew about this? You think they tell me anything? I’m just a fucking idiot who spends his life running back and forth between people with guns! The hell with this! The hell with you! Get someone else!”
The comandante laughs. “OK, OK, calm yourself. We don’t want someone else. We’re used to you.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is identified as the negotiator’s employer (and indeed was a sponsor of the film’s premiere in New York last week), is not crazy about this scene. As one of its people noted, “the ICRC doesn’t like to see itself associated with vulgarity,” and one should be sure to say the movie dialogue is “attributed to a character in the film adaptation of a work of fiction.”
But retired ICRC negotiator Michel Minnig, on whom the character is loosely based, just loves it. “Yeah! Yeah, that was good!” he said after we’d both gone to the screening. Much about the character in the movie reminded him of his own experiences: the high tension; the long waits; the many frustrations. “He is a very human character,” Minnig said.
More than that, humanity is the stuff that negotiators work with—sometimes all they have to go on when dealing with people whose basic reflex is to kill.
“The two sides aim their guns at each other, while the aim of the mediator is to push them down and get them to meet,” says Anthony Weintraub, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Paul Weitz.
At this point, something more than the usual “full disclosure” probably is in order.
The producer of Bel Canto is Caroline Baron, whom I first met on the set of a movie, Flawless, when I went there to interview Robert De Niro and talk about espionage plots more than 20 years ago. Caroline was a line producer there on the set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and while waiting for cameras to roll (moviemaking is mostly about waiting), we discovered we shared a few friends and a lot of interests in the way the world works, or doesn’t.
When the Kosovo war erupted in 1999 amid scenes of massed, desperate refugees in the Balkans, I was reporting on the developments from Brussels and then Belgrade.
Caroline called to see what she could do. She understood that while shelter and food would be taken care of, there was little or nothing to take the minds of the displaced off the tragedies afflicting them. She thought maybe a not-for-profit organization could be created to show them movies, and before the fighting ended in that brief war she was screening films for those who had fled the combat.
“FilmAid,” as she called the organization, has gone on not only to show movies to refugees and the displaced but to help them make their own videos in Haiti, Africa, and elsewhere. In the early days I was actually on its advisory board.
Not long after the terror attacks on the United States in September 2001, which we both had witnessed in Manhattan along with the days of tragedy and courage that followed, Caroline told me over dinner one evening in Soho that she had read a book by Ann Patchett, Bel Canto, and had found the money to option it.
The basic story involved an opera star—a diva—singing at a big diplomatic reception in an unnamed Latin American country who becomes a pivotal figure in the drama of the siege.
I confess I was not enthusiastic. It sounded like something of a fairy tale, albeit the kind that countless book clubs would—and did—embrace.
About that time, Caroline met Anthony Weintraub, a screenwriter, and started a family. They and their kids often get together with my wife and me, sometimes in New York, sometimes in Europe, sometimes on the set of various projects.
Caroline produced Capote in 2005, which won Philip Seymour Hoffman the best-actor Academy Award. We saw her and her family in Venice when she was filming episodes of Mozart in the Jungle with Monica Bellucci.
All through these years, in the kind of endlessly frustrating series of infuriating disappointments the late John Gregory Dunne wrote about so well in his book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, Caroline and Anthony, who had written the initial script for Bel Canto, were working to pull together the talent and the financing to produce it.
So, when I happened to be in New York last week and could go see the opening night of the movie, it was with real trepidation. What would I say if I didn’t like it?
But in all honesty, and putting all the personal history aside, I think it is a terrific film. My first thought at the end, as I realized both my wife and I had tears in our eyes, was that it will be a great date movie. But whether that judgment holds or not, it is a wonderfully moving romantic fantasy, brilliantly performed by Julianne Moore and the rest of the cast in a narrative more true to life, in its way, than any documentary could be.
The historical event on which the hostage drama in Bel Canto is based was the takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, in December 1996, which led to a siege that lasted 126 days. And anyone interested in the basic facts, cleanly and vividly recorded—including the role of Minnig as both hostage and negotiator—need only read Diana Jean Schemo’s onscene wrap-up for the New York Times in 1997: “How Peruvian Hostage Crisis Became Trip Into the Surreal.” It’s easy to see how that article alone might inspire a fascinating bit of fiction.
But it should be noted, if we want to explore history, that by 1996 embassy seizures were one of the great clichés of insurgencies and national liberation movements. A Rand study in 1980 by the redoubtable Brian M. Jenkins counted 48 “embassy takeovers” worldwide from 1971 to 1980 (PDF).
In Latin America, the Sandinistas hit a Christmas party for the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua in 1974 on their way to taking power in 1979. Guerrillas in Colombia took most of the Bogotá diplomatic corps hostage at a reception in 1980. El Salvador held the record, however, sometimes with several embassy seizures a year.
On my first reporting trip to San Salvador in 1979 the French embassy was taken over by a front organization for one of the guerilla groups, and when I went to check out the scene I wound up with a nervous Salvadoran officer telling me no pictures were allowed and sticking the barrel of his Uzi in my face to make the point.
Other embassy takeovers listed by Jenkins were in the Middle East, most notoriously the seizure of the U.S. compound in Tehran in 1979. But that was a whole different world of insurrection and terror. (It was also the subject of the highly fictionalized "based on a true story" Academy-Award-winning film Argo.)
After seeing Bel Canto one might ask if it could possibly have made a difference had there been, in one of those Latin American embassies, a diva whose voice was like that of the character played by Julianne Moore (Renée Fleming’s voice, in fact). Might she have won some mild concession from the government forces laying siege to the hostages and the hostage takers. Might there have been, over the course of long weeks of tension, some common human thread that tied together the hostages and their hostage takers?
The first answer of Minnig and his ICRC colleague Steven Anderson, who was the organization’s spokesman during the Lima siege, was no. All the women were released very quickly. Those held the longest were hardened politicians, police and military men.
But, pondering their response, I re-read Schemo’s New York Times piece, which mentions that “a conservative Agriculture Minister found himself inspired by his talks with a revolutionary young peasant, and began sketching out a plan to help the poor grow coffee.”
Such things are possible, if only the people who spend their lives "running back and forth between people with guns" can manage to keep the human beings on both sides in the land of the living.