Gray days

A Brazilian political potboiler paints an ambiguous portrait

Bruno Barreto is the heir apparent of Brazilian cinema; he's known on these shores for the lush romanticism of the Sonia Braga travel brochures Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1977) and Gabriela ('83), and in his own country for teen fluff like '81's The Boy from Rio. With the Oscar-nominated Four Days in September he's fashioned a surprisingly rich and nuanced retelling of Brazil's political upheaval of the '60s. The movie captures the knotted tension of Z, the 1969 film that's still the standard for political thrillers, but its world is far less black-and-white than Costa-Gavras'. Barreto, as a result, successfully depicts both the workaday compromises of romantic idealism and the devil's bargain of state-sanctioned patriotism.

It's late 1969 in Rio de Janeiro, in the heady days of flashpoint activism following the suspension of civil liberties and freedom of the press by the ruling military dictatorship. A group of middle-class kids steeped in hard-won moral outrage and a trendy revolutionary fervor decides to concentrate world attention on their struggle by kidnapping the American ambassador. Moving quickly from "The Girl from Ipanema" and Tourist Board stills of Rio's sun-drenched beaches, the film quickly establishes us in the place where political logic begins to polarize: in a climate of fear and sudden loss of privilege.

Fernando (Pedro Cardoso), a writer, and his friend Cezar join the October 8th Revolutionary Movement, or MI-8, one of many independent revolutionary cadres springing up out of Brazil's urban centers. There they undergo intensive training in arms and tactics under the supervision of Comrade Maria (Fernanda Torres), whose hard-bitten exterior belies a romantic strain for which Fernando will ultimately fall.

After Cezar is shot and captured during a bank robbery, Fernando brainstorms kidnapping the ambassador, and seasoned political operatives arrive to oversee the operation. For four days, culminating on September 7, Brazilian Independence Day, they hold Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin) hostage in a safe house while the Brazilian government decides whether to release 15 of their comrades held as ideological prisoners. During that time, Fernando establishes a rapport with the ambassador, whose liberal politics curiously mirror his own, even as he confronts the far reaches of zealotry, should their showdown with the powers that be prove futile. Meanwhile, as the clock runs out, a conscientious police operative, beginning to have moral qualms about the routine interrogation and torture he is expected to administer as part of his duties, closes in on them.

The story is loosely adapted from a first-person account of the times, 1980's O Que a Isso, Companheiro? (What's Up, Comrade?) by Fernando Gabeira (a journalist and current member of the Brazilian Congress), who was ultimately shot, tortured, and imprisoned for much of the next decade as a consequence of his actions.

But rather than the didactic screed or self-serving apologia one might expect, the finished film is a far more clear-eyed study of the small erosions and great compromises that politics inevitably becomes once it mixes with the open air. The kidnappers' admirably intense political convictions are at every turn confounded by the ineptitude and guilelessness of their middle-class folly. The professional terrorists sent to marshal their zeal are repeatedly shown up as bloodless bureaucrats or psychotic thugs. Selfless obedience soon effortlessly strays into feckless opportunism; chain of command quickly engenders petty jealousies and testosterone rivalries. And the enthusiasm of the young is once again quietly squandered, as bright-eyed idealists continually are forced to embrace momentary evils in their pursuit of the greater good. Yet their pursuers are seen as no better or worse--juggling the pressures of work and family, earning an honest day's wage, and making small talk while trying not to drown their latest torture victim in a 50-gallon drum of water.

Best of all, though, is old trooper Arkin as the ambassador, who brings a quiet dignity and heartbreaking urgency to the proceedings, even when presented with the thankless task of portraying fear-driven bouts of incontinence or playing his most emotional moment seated on a toilet. Perhaps as a concession to an American audience, most of his scenes are played in English, and their immediacy registers. (Similarly, although relatively free of requisite Hollywood touches, the film is not above staging one of its bank "expropriations" to the hipster-lounge strains of "House of the Rising Sun.") And as with, say, Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing, Arkin's unexpected humanism illuminates from within what could have been a textbook heavy, and ups the level of discourse all around.

His latest film notwithstanding--'96's surprisingly grim English-language farm drama Carried Away, starring Dennis Hopper and Amy Irving--Four Days marks a welcome change of pace for Barreto. In allowing for the moral ambiguity of modern politics, he has managed to reproduce, in varying shades of gray, an old-fashioned political thriller.

Four Days in September.
Directed by Bruno Barreto. Written by Leopold Serran. Starring Alan Arkin, Pedro Cardoso, Fernanda Torres, Claudia Abreu. Opens Friday.

 
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