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Movie Review

'Four Days' Examines Idealism's Power

January 30, 1998|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

Do you remember where you were on Sept. 4, 1969, when Charles Burke Elbrick, U.S. ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped by Marxist revolutionaries in Rio de Janeiro?

Of course not. If you were old enough to be politically alert then, you were probably too focused on the upheaval at home to be jarred by an overseas event that wasn't even meant to be taken personally by Americans. Elbrick, like other foreign diplomats seized during a reign of terrorist kidnappings, was merely a tool used to gain the release of political prisoners and to bring outside attention to the loss of civil rights under Brazil's oppressive military regime.

Now, nearly 30 years after that event and a decade after democracy has been restored to Brazil, the Elbrick kidnapping is reenacted in Brazilian director Bruno Barreto's "Four Days in September." And though it is too sincerely nonjudgmental to evoke the passion of its participants, it's a fascinating slice of political history.

The movie, adapted from a book-length autobiographical essay by one of Elbrick's abductors, uses archival footage and still photos from the period as backdrop to a very tight, appropriately claustrophobic drama during which we learn a lot about the political circumstances in Brazil but very little about the people actually involved in the story.

As it plays out, "Four Days" may be best absorbed as a representation of the forming opposition to the military government, which formally outlawed free speech in 1968, imposing censorship on the press and criminalizing protest. Dissidents, largely professors and college students, were routinely arrested and tortured and, in many instances, murdered.

Elbrick (Alan Arkin, in a wrenchingly authentic performance) is depicted as an honest, compassionate career diplomat who, like his bosses in the State Department, is keeping a safe distance from Brazilian politics. The U.S. had more or less supported the 1964 military junta, choosing it as the lesser of two evils over the ousted left-wing regime.

Elbrick becomes the target of a small, newly formed group calling itself the October 8th Revolutionary Movement, or MR-8, which is led by a firebrand named Maria (Fernanda Torres). Among her band of frustrated, inexperienced, middle-class young adults is Fernando Gabeira (Pedro Cardoso), an intellectual and journalist whose subsequent book, "What's Up, Comrade?," provided the source material for Barreto and screenwriter Leopoldo Serran (Barreto's collaborator on "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands").

The four days in the title is how long Elbrick is held at a rented house outside Rio while officials run out the clock on the kidnappers' deadline. There are two demands: the freeing and transport to Mexico of 15 political prisoners and open media coverage of the event.

Barreto avoids one of the cliches of hostage movies by ignoring the government's decision-making during the four days. It's made clear, after Elbrick is abducted from a residential street in midday, that the world is watching (even if we weren't) and that the pressure is on.

Instead, Barreto focuses on the tension inside the house, as a rightfully scared Elbrick gets to know his captors and on the efforts of a determined secret service officer (Marco Ricca) to foil the operation.

The cop subplot, though intended to explore the conflicts of ordinary people duty-bound to commit atrocities, is the weakest, most conventional element in the film. What makes "Four Days" riveting drama is the ambivalence of the young kidnappers about their actions. When it's time to kill, will the nonviolent Fernando's political outrage defeat his own humanity?

It's at that moment that the story transcends its political setting and becomes universal. What are we willing to give up for an ideal? Our lives? Our souls? Our identities? Stories about revolutionaries are difficult to make sympathetic because, in the end, it's hard to tell the righteous from their oppressors.

"Four Days" is a flawed film, but in its efforts to feel the pulse of human conscience, as well as the heart, it's dead-on.

* MPAA rating: R, for some language and violence. Times guidelines: violence, scenes of torture; for adults and serious teenagers only.

'Four Days in September'

Alan Arkin: Charles Burke Elbrick

Pedro Cardoso: Fernando Gabeira/Paulo

Fernanda Torres: Maria

Luiz Fernand Guimaraes: Marca~o

Claudia Arbreu: Renee

Nelson Dantas: Toledo

Matheus Nachtegaele: Jonas

Caroline Kava: Elvira Elbrick

Miramax Films presents in association with Pandora Cinema, an L.C. Barreto & Filmes do Equador production. Director Bruno Barreto. Producer Lucy Barreto. Screenwriter Leopoldo Serran, based on the book "What's Up, Comrade?" by Fernando Gabeira. Production director Angelo Gastal. Director of photography Felix Monti. Costumes Emilia Duncan. Music Stewart Copeland. Editor Isabelle Rathery. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

*

* Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500; Westside Pavilion, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202; Edwards Town Center, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.

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