Like an informal reunion of old vets recalling war stories, Brazilian documaker Silvio Da-Rin’s “Hercules 56” is less a study of the politics and motives behind the 1969 kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador to Brazil than a look at how far into the past those days now appear. Most accessible to those with knowledge of the events in question, pic has proven a solid commercial entry since local opening in May and will travel far and wide to fests, with foreign buyers likely to be less receptive.
Da-Rin plays mouse-in-the-corner to a jolly roundtable of now-grizzled leftist radicals, including Flavio Tavares, Agonalto Pacheco and Mario Zanconato, who bring an interesting if often rambling first-person perspective to the heady days of ’69 — five years after a military coup sent Brazil into a state of political turmoil.
Ruthless imposition of dictatorial rule and a wave of mass arrests, executions and disappearances descended on Brazil like a ton of bricks, radicalizing a generation of formerly apolitical students and a large group of more mature left-leaning organizers. Members of both groups comprise Da-Rin’s happy, talky activists, who went to the next phase of armed militancy.
Feeling they had been pushed to the limit by a junta that appeared to brook no compromise, a cadre known as MR-8 published a highly provocative manifesto. They then kidnapped Ambassador Charles Elbrick and demanded a swap for 15 political prisoners — most of them students like Ricardo Vilas and Maria Augusta, the only woman involved in the exchange.
Irony of the September ’69 kidnapping was that the progressive Elbrick was opposed to the Vietnam War, and was remembered as a nice fellow. The point, as these guys amusedly recall the play-by-play, wasn’t to declare war on the Yanks but to draw international attention to Brazil’s suffocating political situation — and it worked. The kidnappers managed to have the prisoners flown via a Hercules 56 airplane to Mexico City and freedom, triggering a global media sensation.
Rather than nostalgia for a livelier time, Da-Rin’s film concludes on a mood of hope, since the former radicals now view Brazil as better now than it has ever been — an opinion, despite the country’s well-documented crime and corruption, that’s become near-consensus across the political spectrum. Lensing and editing are snappy and strong.