“Bel Canto” may mean “beautiful singing,” but it sure as heck doesn’t mean “beautiful movie.”
On Rotten Tomatoes, “Bel Canto,” directed by Paul Weitz and released in September, scored a 60 percent, which tells you exactly what kind of movie it is: mediocre. The only thing that saved it from total disaster was the okay acting from a few great actors.
The movie is based on the book by Ann Patchett inspired by the true story of the 1996 Japanese hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. In the movie, Katsumi Hosokawa (played by Ken Watanabe) is a Japanese businessman visiting an unspecified South American country and attending a party where his opera idol, American Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore), is performing. The party, set in the mansion of the vice president, is made up of high profile dignitaries and becomes the target of guerillas on a mission to kidnap the president and convince him to set free political prisoners. While the real life crisis lasted 126 days, the movie does not show how long the hostages were held. Instead, it focuses on the relationships and dynamics that develop between the hostages and their captives.
Though the premise is gripping and the trailer advertises an action-packed story (more along the lines of “Argo”) the development of the story and characters is boring. The one hour and 42-minute runtime dragged and there is only real action for about five minutes of the whole movie.
The movie focused on the human element of the story by digging deep into the relationships. It could have been an interesting theme if Weitz had not made every relationship cliché, portraying the relational dynamics of the characters as unrealistic and sappy.
The real crisis in Peru did drag on for months, so of course not every moment was action packed. But the movie was hardly engaging, even as it tried to develop unusual relationships between the hostages and between hostages and their captors. There is the love story between Hosokawa and Coss which could be touching but fell into clichés. One moment Coss is an obnoxious diva and views Hosokawa as just another fan. Then a few days later she is falling in love with him as he teaches her chess. There is the misunderstood bad guy who decided to invade and take everyone hostage in order to negotiate the freedom of prisoners, one of whom is his wife. Instead of being a high-stress prison atmosphere, the mansion turns into a little commune where the hostages play games and music, and love blossoms.
By the end, when the government forces swoop in and kill the captors to set the captives free, the captives are weeping over the deaths of their abusers and screaming for them. Perhaps there were some friendships between the hostages and guerillas since the real life crisis dragged on for months. But the end of the movie shows the hostages acting almost regretful to leave the mansion and the buddies they made there. They are playing soccer in the garden with each other and laughing and enjoying the sunshine like they are in some sort of utopia and not in captivity. Perhaps the real-life hostages did have pleasant moments and a genuine affection grew between captives and captors, but the movie paints an unrealistically optimistic picture of captivity.
For such a renowned actress as Julianne Moore, who has won dozens of awards and created masterpieces like “Still Alice,” this movie was certainly a step down for her. Her performance is fine, but not remarkable. Her acting was good enough to make the storyline a little more engaging but not enough to make it a good movie. The same applies to Ken Watanabe’s performance. For these two typically stellar actors, their performances were uninspired and certainly not memorable.
“Bel Canto” underwhelms. The trailer was more interesting and engaging than the film and would probably score higher on the “Tomatometer.”