It took “Bel Canto,” a film based on Ann Patchett’s highly acclaimed 2001 novel, almost two decades to reach the golden screen. Inspired by real events that occured in Peru in 1996, the narrative takes a fresh approach to the typical hostage crisis situation: Rather than approaching the story with jump-scares and gore, Patchett chose to explore and test the boundaries of human compassion within the hostage situations. However, the film’s message is blurred by the dullness of its film adaptation, directed by Paul Weitz, best known for films like “American Pie” and “Little Fockers.”
“The hardest artistic choice was to make [the movie] because I thought it’d come off as too pretentious [with its discussions of death],” Weitz said in the Q&A following a screening of the movie at the School of Cinematic Arts on Tuesday,
Knowing how an overall histrionic tone can make a movie less genuine, Weitz seemed to restrain his film. Unfortunately, “Bel Canto” suffered from failing to perfect this notion, as the production feels too safe and uneventful. While most movies suffer from being overly dramatic, “Bel Canto” isn’t dramatic enough in portraying a threatening hostage crisis.
The film traces a hostage crisis in 1997: Opera singer Roxane Cross (Julianne Moore) is giving a private concert to a group of wealthy individuals, including Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), somewhere in South America. Suddenly, a group of guerillas take over the mansion and agree to free their newly acquired hostages in exchange for the release of their comrades, who are currently political prisoners. Over a month, the hostages and their keepers form an unlikely bond, supported by the occasional musical performance.
Despite its unusual premise, the film almost feels like it’s set on autopilot. For instance, the initial seizing of the mansion should have been a climactic, pivotal scene, but its execution comes across as casual and predictable.
Both wealthy individuals and guerilla members try to form relationships as the hostage crisis increases in urgency: At its core, the film attempts to venture into the political. However, because the initial takeover lacked any tension, the contrast between the hostages and their keepers is not as stark as it should be. In this way, the interactions don’t feel earned; rather, they come across as staged or contrived.
The failure to convincingly have these two sides interact with each other is also, in part, because of the inconsistent pacing. After a few minutes, the film jumps right to the takeover, providing barely any time to establish the opening shot or the importance of the various characters. Even though the first 48 minutes of the film run at a brisk pace, the film drags considerably afterward.
The movie’s overall passivity extends to its characters. In the post-screening discussion, Weitz said, “I wanna be open to improvisation, [and] sometimes, it’s on an emotional level […] In [one] case the scene dictated someone to be laughing, but the actor started crying, which seemed to fit the scene better.”
While this is a great method in directing actors, it wasn’t reflected in the final film, as the actors seemed to make little effort in making their nameless characters engaging. Watanabe gives the best performance as Hosokawa, but even then, the bulk of his appeal lies in his preexisting star power. Moore’s performance, while passable, fails to relay nuances of her character’s personality.
A romance between Hosokawa’s translator Gen (Ryo Kase) and guerilla soldier Carmen (María Mercedes Coroy) exemplifies the film’s lack of grounding in reality, as the romance is only established through the gossip of other characters.
The film is unpredictable, as it doesn’t fall into the trap of many Hollywood productions wherein everything works out conveniently for the main characters. There is some sense of consequence and the film uses this opportunity to voice its controversial message of sympathy among unlikely groups one last time.
The idea of befriending those with differing backgrounds in difficult situations is undoubtedly important, particularly in our increasingly turbulent political climate. As dull as the film may be due its pacing and underdeveloped characters, Weitz deserves acclaim for his touching portrayal of human connection throughout the film.