Film Review: “Bel Canto” Sings Well Enough, If a Little Flat

Film poster: “Bel Canto”

Bel Canto (Paul Weitz, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Bel Canto is adapted from Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel of the same name, which itself was based on a real-life hostage crisis that occurred in Peru in 1996. Starring Julianne Moore (Wonderstruck), Ken Watanabe (Inception) and Sebastian Koch (Black Book), among others, the film offers both a high-stakes hostage plot and a meditation on the commonality of humanity across borders and social class. It’s directed by Paul Weitz, who began his career making movies like American Pie and About a Boy, with brother Chris, before moving on to more independent fare like the 2015 Grandma. Though not without cinematic talent, Weitz is hardly the subtlest of directors, and given the glossy oversimplification of complex issues in the original source text, his new movie, though made with good intentions, often suffers from the obviousness of its premise.

Still, the story is not without merit. A Japanese businessman, Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe), is flown to Peru in the hopes that he will build a much-needed factory in the capital. He has no intention of doing so, but accepts the invitation because his hosts have invited (for a very hefty sum) a famous opera singer (hence the “bel canto” of the title), Roxanne Coss (Moore), whom Hosokawa greatly admires, to sing for him at a private party. Unfortunately for all, that party is crashed by members of an indigenous militant group, who mistakenly believe that the President of Peru is present (he was supposed to come, but stayed home to watch his favorite telenovela, instead). Their goal is to draw attention to their country’s horrific wealth disparities and to free imprisoned comrades. What follows is a months-long standoff, during which hostage-takers and hostages slowly bond, forgetting the world outside. From individual arias, they form a gentle chorus, unaware that theirs is no rejuvenating baptism, but a requiem-to-be.

Julianne Moore and María Mercedes Coroy in BEL CANTO @Screen Media Films

Despite the presence of such high-profile actors (Koch plays the Swiss hostage negotiator), it’s the lesser-known players who impress. I particularly admired Ryô Kase (Beyond Outrage), as Hosokawa’s Japanese interpreter, and Marîa Mercedes Coroy (Ixcanul), as the young hostage-taker with whom he falls in love; both deliver deeply moving performances. Christopher Lambert (The Gardener of God) is also fun, in a hammy way, as the French ambassador. Sadly, though Moore delivers her usual warmth and sincerity, the scenes of her singing are hampered by a poor dubbing job, too evidently reminding us that it is not her voice we hear. Watanabe and Koch are both adequate, if unremarkable.

Overall, then, the film is more than watchable, but nothing extraordinary. We quickly understand the point that Weitz wishes to make, and then wait for something resembling drama to unfold. And wait. And wait some more. When the violent climax does come, it is certainly shocking (even if one has read the book), but not quite enough to raise the movie above the pleasantly above-average thriller (or quasi-thriller, as the case may be) it has become. It’s fine; nothing more.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, starting in January, 2018, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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