Movie Review: Bel Canto

It seems like a foolproof recipe for success. Take one Oscar-winning actress and add in Japan and Germany’s biggest global box office stars today, a fairly decorated Hollywood director, the voice of opera’s most famous soprano today, and a screenplay based on a much loved, multiple award-winning novel. What could possible go wrong with that combination? With the movie BEL CANTO, everything.

In the movie which was adapted by director Paul Weitz (ABOUT A BOY; TV’s MOZART IN THE JUNGLE) and producer Anthony Weintraub, famed soprano Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore, SUBURBICON; WONDERSTRUCK; MAGGIE’S PLAN; STILL ALICE; DON JON) is brought to an unnamed South American country (but we all know it’s supposed to be Peru) to perform at a private event for the country’s ethnic Japanese president. What she doesn’t know is that the president has arranged the concert for visiting wealthy Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA), who is Coss’ biggest fan. The president is hoping to wow Hosokawa so that he’ll build a factory in this economically-depressed country. No sooner has Coss sung her first few notes than the venue – the house of the country’s vice president – is overrun by rebels who take everyone hostage. Unfortunately for them though, the president is a no-show, preferring instead to stay home and watch his favourite telenovela. The Red Cross, for some head-scratching reason, quickly sends in Messner (Sebastian Koch, FOG IN AUGUST; THE DANISH GIRL; BLACK BOOK; THE LIVES OF OTHERS; GLOOMY SUNDAY; TV’s HOMELAND) to negotiate the hostages’ release but the government has decided to dig in its heels and leave the rebels and their hostages to rot in the house. As weeks go by, bonds begin to develop between various people as everyone learns to cope with their unwelcome situation as best they can until the inevitable happens.

I wish I could say something good about this film (the lighting? the Japanese was translated correctly?) but BEL CANTO is just a bland and oft-times laughingly ridiculous mess. This film has three major actors yet none of them is able to ignite as much as a spark of excitement here. Coss is supposed to be a complicated diva, and we see some of that when she tells her backstory to one of the rebels, but when she should be looking rather perturbed, she’s coping quite well, thank you. Watanabe, for his part, just follows Coss around like a lonely puppy. For being a supposed high-powered businessman who must certainly know how to manage in a crisis situation not to mention how to negotiate deals, he’s pretty ineffectual once things settle down in the house. As for Koch, yes, he’s supposed to be frustrated by the lack of progress with the negotiations, but that look of frustration he has on his face seems more to be a reflection of being handed a weak script from a director who has no clear vision of what he wants.

I haven’t read the book but I hear from friends who have that it’s quite good (though not author Ann Patchett’s best). Whatever made the story interesting somehow got lost in the transition to the big screen. The blame must certainly fall on Weitz who has turned this story into a movie-of-the-week that belongs on a third-rate TV channel. The director uses grainy faux-film footage to convey… how Third World this unnamed country is supposed to be? I’m not sure what point he is trying to make here. Even more amateurish is the handling of the dozen or so extras whose job it was to stand outside the vice-president’s residence and protest on cue. I’ve seen better work coming from film students in high school. Finally I’ll mention Renee Fleming whose exceptional singing talent is used in the film. From the first bar, it’s stunningly clear that Weitz isn’t even trying to make it look like Moore is the one singing. It only gets more disingenuous when Moore sings Evita-like from the house’s balcony in the film’s second act. That scene elicited roars of laughter from my audience for its lack of authenticity.

BEL CANTO hits all the wrong notes. Do yourself a huge favour and give it a miss. (Sorry, Patti! I know this is your cousin’s film but it’s not good at all.)

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, September 27th at 8:30 am HK time!

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