Paul Weitz’s “Bel Canto” is a film that’s astounding, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s based on a celebrated novel by Ann Patchett. It stars Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe, two of the most magnetic actors working today. It’s a story that incorporates a hostage crisis, forbidden love, political revolution and all the glory of opera. And it makes almost no impression whatsoever.
“Bel Canto” takes place in an unspecified South American country, where a Japanese businessman named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being wooed with a fancy party, in the hopes that he will build new factories and boost the economy. He has no interest in investing, but he’s lured to the event anyway, because his favorite opera singer Roxanne Cross (Moore, with Renee Fleming providing the vocals) has been hired as the evening’s entertainment.
Roxanne doesn’t actually want to be there either, but before anyone can commiserate over how much they hate this unnamed place, the party is overrun by armed guerrillas who want to hold the president for ransom. When they discover that the president stayed home to watch telenovelas, they double down anyway, keeping all the male hostages and Roxanne as well, since she’s such a high-profile figure.
It’s almost shocking how little immediacy there is to “Bel Canto,” a film which features theoretically intense moments but is disinterested in exploring them. The terrorists run drills in which they practice killing all of the hostages as quickly as possible, making “pew-pew” noises with their mouths for dramatic effect.
But “Bel Canto” isn’t about rescuing the hostages, and it isn’t about laying siege to any bad guys. It’s a film about settling in, getting used to your surroundings, and making an unusual home with unusual bedfellows. Stockholm Syndrome goes both ways, and the captors and captives alike develop an uneasy connection. They get involved in each other’s love lives, they cook together, they form a bond.
It’s a development that could be disturbing, but Paul Weitz (“Grandma”) seems to find it hopeful. There are only a few ways this story could possibly end, if you’ve seen how hostage crises play out in the news (or even in movies), and whichever direction it takes, “Bel Canto” considers that a tragic development.
Unfortunately, the movie version of “Bel Canto” can’t quite back up its noble themes and competent performances. The opening to the hostage crisis is short, simple and mostly uncomplicated.
The terrorists don’t inspire much terror, even at the start, so it doesn’t take long to bring us around to the possibility that they’re relatable human beings. But “Bel Canto” spends most of its time trying to convince us anyway, in extended, aimless moments of social interaction that serve little purpose other than to make repetitive arguments.
There is a moment in “Bel Canto” which is almost surreal, in which captors and captives play sports together in the yard, teach each other about gardening and talk a shy terrorist out of a tree. The divide between them is visually obvious — the terrorists still have the guns — but for a moment everyone seems oblivious. Earlier on, one of the hostage takers seemed convinced that this crisis could go on forever, and that this was simply their home now.
It’s nothing short of amazing how much people can get used to unthinkable situations, and how closely people can bond when they’re trapped in close proximity to one another. But Weitz cannot sustain that sense of amazement over an entire motion picture. The film’s failure to modulate its tone, its intensity and its messaging makes it a dreary, one-note production. Worse yet, it’s flat.