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Unconventional Wisdom

Despite the tides of government repression and suspected U.S. chicanery that have afflicted his country for the last 35 years, the Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto claims he's not much of a political animal. As if to underscore that, his only global success was 1978's spirited erotic farce Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, a magical-realist charmer in which a beautiful newlywed who's married a dullard begins getting visits from the naked ghost of her nasty (but relentlessly sexy) ex. Don't let this get around, but Barreto's other smash hit, at least on the banks of the Amazon, was something called The Boy From Rio, a flat-out teen beach comedy made in 1981.

So why has Bruno Barreto dug up a 29-year-old news story about leftist radicals' abduction of an American ambassador and turned it into a movie? The answer probably lies in timing: Democracy returned to Brazil in 1989 after 25 years of military dictatorship, and a whole group of artists who used to do things other than the samba suddenly re-emerged from the shadows. Clearly, Barreto's Four Days in September is the result of new freedoms in his homeland.

But this is not a political thriller out of the muckraking, confrontational school Costa-Gavras founded with Z and State of Siege. It doesn't even much resemble the leftish films made by the leaders of Brazil's celebrated cinema novo movement before they went into exile in the mid- to late Sixties. Frankly, it's not even as ideological as Barreto's own A Show of Force (1990), a rather weak-kneed examination of an inflammatory Puerto Rican political incident.

Instead of embracing what used to be called the politics of national liberation, September takes up what might be called, for want of a better term, the politics of human insight. Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara may be turning over in their graves, but in Barreto's view, the maddening naivete of the young kidnappers is as compelling as their idealism, and the humanity and wit of the abducted gringo ambassador are as important as the dark symbolism of his office; even the Brazilian secret police, torturers in the service of a brutal junta, get a chance to explain themselves, if none too convincingly.

Ideologues of various stripes are likely to see Barreto's method as moral equivocation, if not outright treason. But his nonpartisanship makes for full-bodied drama. In giving fictionalized voice to all the antagonists embroiled in an event that made headlines back in September 1969, he compels us to see the dynamics of the thing with some historical perspective. There's no propaganda here. There is propagation of inquiry, and plenty of all-too-human behavior.

It's a wonder Barreto got this far. He went through six screenwriters before settling on Leopoldo Serran, who had worked with the director three times before. In the main, Serran's task was to remove much of the self-service and mumbo jumbo from the book that is the film's basis, What's Up, Comrade? It's a memoir published in 1980 by one Fernando Gabeira, a former journalist turned armed radical who actually dreamed up the plot that resulted in the kidnapping of U.S. ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick on September 4, 1969, in Rio de Janeiro. Following imprisonment and exile (to Sweden), Gabeira is now back in Brazil, where he represents the Green Party in the Brazilian congress.

In the person of actor Pedro Cardoso, Gabeira appears in Four Days in September as a geeky, bespectacled student intellectual who might pass as a South American version of Woody Allen. His conspirators aren't much more impressive warriors of revolution. Maria (Fernanda Torres) is steely-eyed but uncertain, Cesar (Selton Mello) can't pull the trigger when it counts, and doe-eyed Renee (Claudia Abreu) has the air of a teenager enveloped in sweet melancholy. They take to their new noms de guerre like kids in a school play, shoot bottles at the beach with revolvers and start calling themselves "MR-8." Still, these amateurs only half-botch a bank job (in pseudo-Marxist cant, a "people's expropriation"). Then, with help from Jonas (Matheus Nachtegaele) and Toledo (Nelson Dantas), a pair of hardcore operatives from Sao Paulo, they manage to nab the American diplomat, his Cadillac and the driver. As ransom, MR-8 demands that its manifesto be read on TV and that fifteen imprisoned leftists be released. Otherwise, they'll kill Elbrick.

While they (and we) wait for the military government to respond, Barreto goes about the useful business of showing us interesting people with assorted causes under great stress. The ambassador, played with grace and great dignity by Alan Arkin, turns out (shock!) to be a political liberal who disapproves of America's role in Vietnam and who displays a lively sense of humor to go along with his fear of dying. The half-formed young radicals have all sorts of endearing quirks, from one's devotion to comic books to another's telltale weakness for cleanliness. When's the last time you saw a kidnapper wash her captive's bloody shirt in the sink and gently hand it back to him? How often is a young comrade chosen by the revolution to go for pizzas?

For that matter, have you ever seen a cop in the bowels of the police station half-drown a prisoner in a tub of water and simultaneously discuss that evening's house party? And then witness his soft-spoken wife's horror when he tells her what he's up to this week?

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