Bel Canto

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Bel Canto
dir Paul Weitz
scr Paul Weitz, Anthony Weintraub
prd Caroline Baron, Anthony Weintraub, Paul Weitz, Andrew Miano
with Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Tenoch Huerta, Ryo Kase, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Noe Hernandez, Christopher Lambert, Olek Krupa, Johnny Ortiz, J Eddie Martinez, Elsa Zylberstein
release US 14.Sep.18,
UK 26.Apr.19
18/US 1h40

koch kase lambert

watanabe and moore
A hybrid of political thriller and earthy drama, this film's tone is so odd that it keeps the audience off balance, which makes it compulsively watchable. Based on the Ann Patchett novel, several plot turns feel rather gratuitous, partly because the passage of time is unclear, but filmmaker Paul Weitz finds the humanity in each scene. Watching it is strangely involving, and where it goes is profoundly timely.
In 1996, a Peru-like South American government throws a lavish party to convince Tokyo businessman Hosokawa (Watanabe) to invest in the country, flying in his favourite opera singer Roxanne (Moore) to perform for him. But during the concert, commandos break in and take everyone hostage, demanding the release of political prisoners. Red Cross operative Messner (Koch) arrives to help diffuse the situation, which gets increasingly tense. As the days turn into weeks, the multicultural hostages pass the time by sharing their skills, but the rebels begin to realise they are losing the upper hand.
The underlying themes of colonial abuse, government corruption and mercenary self-interest add interest to a story that never quite settles into a groove. This makes the film a little frustrating to connect with, but it also keeps the audience from becoming complacent. On the other hand, Weitz stirs in corny cliches that undermine the premise, such as the commandos' Che Guevara-chic outfits or Messner strolling thoughtfully around a pyramid in between negotiations. Thankfully, the actors keep the characters grounded.

Moore gives far more to the role than seems written, making Roxanne a feisty, compelling figure, even when forced at gunpoint to sing Evita-style from a balcony. Her interaction with others is full of intrigue, humour, passion, whatever is required and then some. And the supporting cast take the same well-rounded approach, adding layers to both kidnappers and hostages, even when the way they interact begins to feel contrived, from a candle-lit banquet to a couple of romances across language barriers.

The juxtaposition of warmth and terror is probably more realistic than it seems on-screen. It's rare to see a film complex enough to play around with unexpected connections between a group of people who would rarely if ever interact. This makes the offbeat series of events impossible to predict, especially with the meandering, somewhat random pacing. So where the story goes is deeply unnerving, as it flips the tables on the audience with a climactic sequence that's far too authentic.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 13.Apr.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall