Based on the novel by Ann Patchett – loosely based on the 1996 Peruvian Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis – Bel Canto is an unusual love story that follows opera star Roxane Cross (Julianne Moore) who travels to an unnamed country in South America to perform at a private concert for Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese industrialist looking for an economical place in the continent to build a factory. In the midst of this display of wealth, extravagance, and cultural imagery, the gathering is interrupted by a rebel group who mistakenly believe that the president of the nation is at the party. What ensues is a month-long standoff between the group and the hostages, as the group demands the release of their imprisoned comrades.
The hostages make up a diverse group. Apart from Roxane and Katsumi, the group includes, among others, French Ambassador Thibault (Christopher Lambert), Katsumi’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase ), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa). Their only contact to the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). Despite the hostages and captors speaking in various different languages, they begin to understand each other, partially thanks to Gen’s translation, resulting in director, Paul Weitz, turning this prison into a haven where social status and elitism is erased. Roxane’s music is also used as a communicative tool between the captors/hostages and the outside world, with the captors using her voice to lower tensions between them and local authorities.
While the Japanese hostage crisis was a bloodbath, Weitz takes a more dramatic, and less violent approach. In the midst of threats and tension, unexpected bonds between the captors and the hostages are formed. The tone of the narrative at the beginning of the film is quickly turned light as the film attempts to shift into a kind of love story. Somehow with all the tension and guns waving in their face, Roxane and Katsumi fall in love and share moments of intimacy, which in most circumstances would seem lovely, but are out of place here. What’s more strange is Gen falling in love with one of the rebels and vice versa. And after a month of captivity, the hostages and rebels play a game of soccer like they are a group of friends on the school field. The narrative tries hard to demonstrate the humanity of the captors, as though it’s attempting to make the audience fall into the hostages’ shoes by also sympathizing with the captors; to feel the Stockholm Syndrome the hostages are clearly experiencing in order to reduce the severity and reality of the horrible real-life story.
Because the cast of characters is so long, the development and background of each aren’t fully realized, and they end up underused. Even Moore, one of the most accomplished dramatic actress, doesn’t get much to do here other than lip-sync some opera. Bel Canto tries to seem ambitious in its narrative, but turns into a tonal mishmash whose success, ultimately, lies with the viewer.