Four Days in September
1997, R, 113 min. Directed by Bruno Barreto. Starring Alan Arkin, Fernanda Torres, Pedro Cardoso, Claudia Abreu, Eduardo Moscovis, Marco Ricca.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Feb. 13, 1998
The same moral absolutism that makes revolutionary action possible weakens many political movies by alienating viewers who distrust their propagandistic feel. Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands) nimbly avoids this classic pitfall with a gripping, intelligent film based on the true story of Brazilian student revolutionaries who, in 1969, kidnapped American ambassador Charles Elbrick to secure the release of political prisoners. Actually, the term “revolutionaries” may seem a bit grandiose at first. Only weeks before taking arms against the ruling military junta, these kids are basically bumper-sticker Marxists whose major blows against the establishment have been to attend protest rallies and snap off sarcastic comments while watching Neil Armstrong moonwalk on TV. (“The heroic American cavalry rescues the moon,” one wiseass remarks, drawing his pal's accurate rejoinder: “Yeah, but you'd be drooling all over yourself if he was a Russian.”) Yet for all their satire-worthiness, the dewy-eyed members of the “October 8th Revolutionary Movement” have both a righteous cause and the guts to act on it. After brief training by a slightly more experienced rabble-rouser named Maria (Torres), they're liberating funds from government banks and urging the captive customers to rise up against the right-wing regime. Quickly recognizing the need for more extreme action, they solicit the leadership of a truly scary veteran revolutionary (Moscovis), who helps them plan and successfully execute the Elbrick kidnapping. Much of the story from this point focuses on the waiting game as a morally conflicted secret service agent (Ricca) tracks the kids down and Elbrick, portrayed affectingly by Arkin as a decent man whose job has pushed him into a Graham Greene- esque existential quandary, tries to make his captors understand the unpalatable choices superpowers face in dealing with foreign human rights issues. This approach may lack the emotional pyrotechnics of Costa-Gavras' Z, to which some have unfavorably compared Four Days in September. And granted, Barreto's characters do spend a lot of time sitting around in darkened rooms talking and peering out the blinds. There's a romance between Maria and a student named Fernando (Cardoso, playing the alter-ego of writer Fernando Gabeira, whose novel provided the source material), but it seems driven as much by shared revolutionary fervor as sexual passion. Z it isn't, that's for sure. Still, even refusing to produce the kind of simplistic, muscled-up political melodrama we've come to expect from such films, Barreto is able to show how this largely forgotten incident really mattered in the overall scheme of history. Not a watershed event, it was simply one of many acts of desperate, foolhardy courage that eventually eroded the base of an illegitimate regime. For all my admiration of Costa-Gavras, I find Barreto's approach equally persuasive -- and far more amenable to my chronically skeptical turn of mind. Inspirational stuff, even for those who always rolled their eyes at “Something in the Air.”