Bruno Barreto’s “Four Days in September” is a scrupulously even-handed account of the 1969 kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil by left-wing revolutionaries. Everyone has his reasons, and nothing — not even the torture of political prisoners — is ever allowed to get out of hand in this telling. Pic is admirably intelligent but dramatically tepid. Offshore theatrical prospects are slight, though some international TV exposure is probable.
Loosely based on an autobiography, “O que e isso, companheiro?” by Fernando Gabeira, one of the real-life kidnappers, “Four Days” focuses on a group of young idealists involved in the Oct. 8 Revolutionary Movement (MR-8). Four new recruits, including Gabeira (Pedro Cardoso), undergo rigorous training in guerrilla warfare under the demanding Comrade Maria (Fernanda Torres).
Later, the ragtag group carries out “a revolutionary expropriation” — i.e., a bank robbery — during which one of their comrades is captured.
The other revolutionaries escape with a large sum of money. Even so, Gabeira insists they will not be truly successful until they openly challenge the military government — and, by doing so, gain international publicity for their cause. Gabeira suggests they kidnap Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin), the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, to press their demands for the release of 15 political prisoners. Gabeira’s comrades take the suggestion to heart.
Screenwriter Leopoldo Serran (who co-wrote Barreto’s “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands”) is careful not to turn Elbrick into some kind of Ugly American stereotype. Arkin gives a nicely sympathetic performance as the ambassador, coming off as a reasonable and compassionate individual who doesn’t always agree with his own country’s foreign policy, including the Vietnam war. During Elbrick’s captivity, he and Gabeira actually begin a tentative friendship. This increases the suspense when, late in the film, Gabeira is given the task of executing the ambassador if the political prisoners aren’t freed.
Except for a pair of hard-core terrorists who arrive from Sao Paulo to take charge of the kidnapping, the revolutionaries are, for the most part, nonviolent idealists. Even the tough-talking Marie admits during a stressed-out moment that she would rather spend time in prison than die for her cause. This idealized depiction of the MR-8 guerrillas may not be entirely in sync with other accounts of the kidnapping, but it is persuasive enough for the purposes of the drama.
Throughout “Four Days in September,” Barreto adamantly refuses to divide his characters into heroes and villains. The director even is willing to give the devil his due. Henrique (Marco Ricca), a secret service officer who tortures prisoners — including the MR-8 novice captured during the bank robbery — is tormented by self-doubt. He can’t sleep at night, and can barely stomach what he does during the day. And when he tries to tell his wife about his clandestine activities, she rejects him.
Ricca does a fine job conveying his character’s inner conflicts, but Barreto fails to develop this subplot. Likewise, Barreto tends to underplay other key elements of the narrative. The police are able to locate the kidnappers mainly because the kidnappers order fast food instead of cooking. This is a darkly amusing irony, but Barreto makes little of it.
Cardoso makes a promising film debut as Gabeira, a left-wing journalist who finds that picking up a gun isn’t as easy as it looks. Torres conveys no-nonsense authority and anxious vulnerability with equal conviction as Maria. The only weak link in the cast is Fisher Stevens, who tries a bit too hard as a supercilious U.S. embassy employee. And it’s difficult to believe anyone this shaggy-haired would be working for the U.S. diplomatic service in 1969.
Stewart Copeland provides an evocative and eclectic musical score that incorporates a reworking of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Art director Marcos Flaksman and costumer Emilia Duncan capture the period flavor with subtle skill.
Pic is Barreto’s first production in his native Brazil in a decade, and was Brazil’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards.