Review: 'Bel Canto', Julianne Moore And Ken Watanabe Try To Find Passion During A Hostage Crisis

Bel Canto has all of the makings of a great film; a harrowing true story, a talented assemblage of stars, and a director in Paul Weitz who has stumbled upon occasional dramatic success since leaving his American Pie roots behind. Based on the Ann Pratchett novel which drew inspiration from the 1996 Japanese Embassy hostage crisis, Bel Canto sets out to be a passionate look at the romantic and cultural bonds that can form during captivity, but the one thing the movie is lacking above all else is passion. What's left is a film so dull it could be used as torture by one's captors.

There's simply no energy or narrative momentum to be found, leaving too much of the dramatic burden placed on the shoulders of stars Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe. In virtually any other scenario they would be more than capable, and they do their best here, but they lack the necessary chemistry to pull it off. He plays Japanese businessman Katsumi, who travels to Peru to attend a lavish party thrown by the country's vice-president because in attendance will be Roxane (Moore), his favorite opera singer. It's safe to say Katsumi is a little bit obsessed; while a calm, serious man in most respects he is very clearly flustered when in her presence, and the language barrier doesn't help. Within moments of her performance, members of a revolutionary outfit storm the mansion demanding to see the president so they can force him to release their imprisoned compatriots. But the president never arrived, and the terrorists' leader Commandant Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) is forced to go to plan B and take hostages.

Weitz and co-writer Anthony Weintraub drop the ball with the film's most intriguing aspect. After the shock has worn down from the initial attack's violence, the captors and captives begin to settle into a strange domesticity, spurred on by one young soldier's accidental killing of a hostage. While Benjamin finds negotiating with the government difficult, on the inside he and the others begin to look at the hostages as more than just bargaining chips, but as people. They start forming what looks like a commune of social elites and working class soldiers, exactly the kind of union Benjamin and his people claim to be fighting for. This weird little paradise finds Katsumi getting  exactly what he desired most, a personal audience with Roxane, who begins to let her diva guard down. Katsumi's loyal translator Gen (Ryo Kase) falls for Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a poor revolutionary desirous of learning the English language. Weitz is a little too effective at showing the daily monotony of their capture, and the myriad romantic entanglements are only a brief respite. The stakes never feel quite as high as they should for a house full of armed terrorists, and a government on the outside eager to charge in guns blazing. The only thing stopping a potential bloodbath is the work of a frustrated crisis negotiator (Sebastian Koch) who gets some of the film's most intense scenes. He alone seems to know where things are headed, and watching him evolve from confident to befuddled to panicked shows an avenue I wish Bel Canto had traveled further.

As normalcy and capitulation set in, too many of the hostages never break out of their stupor. Watanabe is charismatic as ever, looming over every scene like a well-respected patriarch, but he finds little in common with Moore, and they lack the romantic spark needed to enliven their scenes together. Moore has the most to work with, as Roxane is shown to be the only hostage willing to defy her captors, knowing of the value she has to them. The one thing Moore can't do? Lip sync. While famed soprano Renee Fleming provides Roxane's powerful singing voice, Moore's clumsy miming would have LL Cool J booting her off Lip Sync Battle.

Weitz has a worthy story to tell about love under the most trying of circumstances, but stripped of any urgency and danger, Bel Canto fails to give the crisis the big screen treatment it deserves.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5