Bel Canto will probably be the most charming and endearing hostage crisis movie I’ll see this year.
Viewers unfamiliar with the real life incident the 1996-1997 Lima Crisis will likely have very different expectations for how the film will play out. The actual event saw Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement seize a Japanese ambassador’s party and take hundreds of hostages in exchange for the release of their compatriots.
Director/co-writer Paul Weitz and co-writer Anthony Weintraub adapt Ann Patchett’s best-selling 2001 novel. It’s easy to see why the book has become so beloved and acclaimed over the years thanks to the mix of eclectic and interesting characters.
Among the hostages is Japanese business mogul Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe, Godzilla); his translator Gen (Ryo Kase); French ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert, Kickboxer: Retaliation) and diva opera singer Roxane Cross (Julianne Moore, Still Alice). The terrorists, including Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) are portrayed with greater depth and allowed to be more than one-note stereotypes. That’s obvious in the subplot focusing on the budding romance of terrorist Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy) and Gen.
Coroy and Kase convey their characters’ growing interest and are in many ways the heart of the film. They deliver some of the film’s best performances. I’m a big fan of Moore as she has a certain warmth and grace that she instills into each role.
An unavoidable aspect of the film is that Moore is not a classically trained opera singer. Renée Fleming provides the vocals while Moore lip syncs. The effort is clearly there, but it’s not quite convincing enough to sell the illusion in some of the film’s biggest moments.
Roxane has an interesting arc as she starts out self-absorbed and gradually begins to care about her fellow hostages and even the terrorists. The most intriguing is her connection to Katsumi despite their language barrier. Watanabe exudes a vintage movie star charisma and he’s always a commanding presence on screen even in a less nuanced role like Katsumi.
Weitz has an intimate, in the moment directing style that’s worked well in films like Admission, American Dreamz and About a Boy. Bel Canto retains much of his signature flavor with heartfelt moments in the midst of an extraordinarily chaotic event. This is a film that shines in those quiet spaces with characters. There’s not a lot of showy moments and despite the sometimes absurd nature of the situation, it feels authentic.
At times, the film is too charming and comfortable. The threats of violence lack the same punch as the invasion from the opening act. In making the terrorists more sympathetic Weitz diminishes their threat and leans more into a feel good story, which is a huge contrast as characters tote machine guns and work on their singing.
Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) has one of the more engaging roles as Joachim Messner, the Swiss representative from the Red Cross. Messner is allowed to come in and out to check on the well being of the hostages. Fully aware of the nature of the circumstances, Messner foreshadows how this situation will ultimately play out.
That’s the real key. As the inevitable final act plays out, it carries more weight than expected. To some degree it’s due to Weitz having us buy in if even for just a moment that everything will work out OK. When reality sets in, it’s surprising how much he and his cast made those bonds and relationships feel alive.
Bel Canto gets pitchy at times, but it’s a strong character piece that warrants a box seat to take in this performance.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Photo Credit: Screen Media