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(1998) (Pedro Cardoso, Alan Arkin) (R)

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Drama: An inexperienced group of Brazilian political terrorists kidnaps an American ambassador in the late 1960's.
A military coupe has overthrown the democratic government of Brazil in the 1960's. All civil rights and freedom of the press have been suppressed and the jails have been filled with political prisoners who are often tortured. In response, the MR8, a political revolutionary movement has sprung up to fight back against the totalitarian, military run government. Led by "comrade" Maria (FERNANDA TORRES) and her associate, Marcão (LUIZ FERNANDO), the group inducts several young, politically active people into their fold.

Given new names to use in case of capture, Paulo (PEDRO CARDOSO), Oswaldo (SELTON MELLO), Renée (CLAUDIA ABREU), and Júlio (CAIO JUNQUEIRA) agree to do whatever they can to make their collectively disgruntled voice heard. Despite scoring a successful bank heist where Oswaldo is shot and captured, the desperados know they must do more to be noticed. Suddenly heavy in cash, they hire veteran terrorists Jonas (MATHEUS NACHTERGAELE) and Toledo (NELSON DANTAS) to help plan a kidnaping that will certainly draw attention to their efforts.

Taking American ambassador Charles Elbrick (ALAN ARKIN) hostage, they threaten to kill him within forty-eight hours if certain political prisoners aren't released. Holed up in a large house outside of town, the group waits for the government's decision. While this is happening, Brazilian secret service agents Henrique (MARCO RICCA) and his partner Brandão (MAURÍCIO GONÇALVES) get closer to finding the terrorists' hideout. As the clock winds down toward the end of the kidnapers' threat, it's uncertain whether their demands will be met or if they'll have to execute the ambassador.

A subtitled film about an ambassador's kidnaping in the late 1960's won't have many kids rushing out to see it.
For some language and violence.
Other than ALAN ARKIN who plays the kidnaped American ambassador, the rest of the performers play characters who are terrorists or torture-inflicting government agents and thus aren't good role models.


OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Films dealing with kidnaping and hostage situations have the advantage of showing up with a built-in interest factor. While audiences have seen many takes on the genre, the stories often work simply because of the inherent conflict-based drama, and the many perspectives from which the story can be told. Such plots can focus on the victim, why he or she was kidnaped, as well as whether they'll get out of the predicament. Other times, the story focuses on those working from the outside who try to resolve the problem, be it an angry parent or a cop. Finally, the perpetrators can be the focus of the story that explains who they are and why they've kidnaped someone.

Such stories are also sometimes successful because we don't know how they'll turn out. There are the questions of whether the kidnapers' plan will work, if the police/officials will find and stop them, and whether the terrorists will carry out their lethal threat should their demands not be met -- all of which provides for good dramatic conflict. Finally there are the relationships that develop out of the situation. Will there be any bonding between the kidnapers and the victim, or will the kidnaping group begin to splinter under the continually increasing stress levels? Of course there's also the factor of the truth (if any) behind the story and how the events will eventually unfold -- especially when the real-life outcome is unknown to most viewers.

Based on true-life events that occurred in Rio de Janeiro in the fall of 1969, "Four Days in September" is a compelling feature that has the needed elements and generally succeeds despite the many "obstacles" it faces. A film about a little known historical event featuring an essentially unknown cast speaking Portuguese and presented in English subtitles has, for the most part, a tough road ahead of it trying to lure in moviegoers.

Actually, the unknown cast is the film's greatest strength. Had this been a typical big budget, Hollywood production with well-known stars, it probably wouldn't have been as effective. Such star vehicles are usually quite predictable as we're almost always certain the star will "win" whether they play the victim or the person trying to stop the kidnapers. Did anyone really think that Mel Gibson would fail to rescue his son in "Ransom?" Now, such films do have a place in that they push audiences to a certain level of stress that's then relieved by an expected, but still satisfactory ending. In this film, however, the fact that we aren't that familiar with the performers (beyond Arkin) and the characters they inhabit creates a great deal more suspense. The story could go any way, and that's what makes it so compelling.

There are some problems, however, that weaken the effort. Since this story focuses on the kidnapers, we need to know something about them -- the more, the better -- and the film makers have several avenues from which to choose in telling their story. We can find them despicable and root for their failure, we can strongly support their cause and root for their success, or they can be "grey" characters that have a mixture of both elements.

Director Bruno Barreto and screenwriter Leopoldo Serran have taken the latter route, but left out a very crucial piece necessary to make their efforts pay off. While these kidnapers are "freedom" fighters, the film makers haven't divulged enough information about them for the audience to really care about their cause or, conversely, to despise them. Their motivation comes from a purely conceptual goal and not from personal need or experience. Thus, we understand that they hate the new oppression under which they live, but the abstract -- and essentially removed -- motivation behind their actions weakens the film's thrust.

A few moments of making this issue personal for the characters -- beyond the generic "life's bad and I'm not going to take it any more" stance -- would not only have deepened their characteristics, but would have allowed us to really care about their cause. As it stands, we know why they're doing what they're doing, but we don't really care since the film makers haven't allowed us to get totally involved. While the validity or defense of their actions is another completely debatable issue, the fact that we don't really care weakens what could have had a greater impact on the audience. That's a serious omission as it gives the feature more of a documentary feel than that of a compelling drama.

Other characters aren't that well developed either. We know next to nothing about the two older terrorists who are brought in to command the kidnaping except that they play more of the stereotypical villains commonly found in such movies. We also have two Brazilian secret service agents who, when not torturing suspects, pursue the kidnapers. Except for a brief scene where one of them breaks down about having to torture people (the obligatory confession moment that feels very forced and out of place), we never know much about these people.

Thus, like our neutrality toward the kidnapers, we don't care about the agents' efforts, other then that they're the "good" guys trying to save the ambassador's life. All of that makes you wish that either these guys' lives and motivation were more fully explored, or that Barreto had kept them as nothing more than ancillary characters who provide the "heat" on the perpetrators.

Beyond the weak motivations, another element that hurts the film's commercial prospects is that the Arkin's hostage is extremely passive -- there's no Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis type action building up here. While this situation is probably much closer to reality than most other films of this genre care to display, it doesn't make for the greatest cinema. Obviously Baretto didn't intend this story to go that route and we certainly don't expect Alan Arkin to bust some heads and carry out an elaborate escape plan. His overbearing passivity, however true to the real story, keeps the film from taking off. He never really tries to get into the kidnapers' heads -- to befriend them, or slam a wedge between their individual motivations. Instead, it's his passive approach that eventually causes some of them to rethink their mission. Some viewers may like that aspect, but it doesn't make for the most exciting drama and it does somewhat ground the film.

That said, some of the performers still manage to create interesting characters that do hold our interest. Two-time Oscar nominee Alan Arkin obviously has the easiest chore. Essentially like any "victim" in other similar stories, his being the hostage immediately endears his character to the audience. It doesn't hurt, though, that Arkin also brings a very human dignity to his limited (as far as screen time) role. Pedro Cardoso and Fernanda Torres, as the two main kidnapers, deliver intriguing takes on their characters despite the fact that we never really know what deeply motivates them. What's "nice" is that their characters aren't the stereotypical Hollywood villains who are outrageously mean and menacing. Instead, they're small-time opportunists with the lead character being a gangly, nerdy young man with Coke bottle thick glasses.

The best moments come when there's some interaction between Arkin's character and those kidnapers, and one wishes that there were more between them. For those are the moments where we learn the most about all of the characters involved in the story, but we don't get to see enough of that. A brief moment, for example, where the ambassador reads aloud a letter to his wife describing the kidnapers tells us more about them than much of the rest of the movie. Instead of more of that, the film makers chose to focus more attention on the "technical" aspects of the kidnaping.

Despite the use of subtitles (that we hate since they divert your attention away from the film's visuals) and the omission of really knowing what's behind the kidnapers' actions, the film still comes off as compelling. Much like the way certain documentaries can do the same, the film isn't hurt by the fact that we know the story is real and (for most of us) don't know how the events will eventually unfold. While its commercial prospects don't look great, the film is constructed in anything but the typical Hollywood fashion and, somewhat because of that, manages to be moderately captivating. For that reason we give "Four Days In September" a 5.5 out of 10.

Although it's doubtful many kids, if any, will want to see this film, here's a quick look at the content. Bad attitudes obviously abound, from the oppressive, totalitarian government (that tortures its prisoners) to the kidnaping activists who threaten to kill their hostage. There are a few violent moments where people are shot or tortured, but none of it's very graphic. Some photos in a magazine very briefly show some female nudity, and there's a heavy amount of profanity, but all of it occurs in Portugese (seen in English in the subtitles). There's also some drinking and many of the characters smoke (the film is set in the late 60's).

  • In an early montage, photos show some people drinking, and in other scenes minor characters drink here and there.
  • A character mentions getting drunk several times celebrating Russian space successes.
  • People drink at an embassy party.
  • Renée and the head of security drink beer in two different scenes.
  • Blood squirts out of a man's leg when he's shot and we later see some blood on the street around him.
  • Elbrick's head is a little bloody after being hit.
  • The military run government has both as they've wiped out civil rights and freedom of the press and routinely torture their prisoners.
  • Likewise, the terrorists have both as they kidnap the ambassador and threaten to kill him. Additionally, they rob a bank at gunpoint.
  • Some viewers may find a bank robbery committed at gunpoint as tense, but it's not too bad. There is a brief exchange of gunfire, however, as the robbers make their escape.
  • A government agent holds a group member's head under water for long periods of time to persuade him to talk.
  • The group kidnaps the ambassador at gunpoint.
  • There are a few moments where people in the group threaten to kill Elbrick (such as when Jonas holds a gun to his head).
  • Tension builds as the group's ten o'clock deadline approaches (when they plan to execute Elbrick).
  • The police follow the terrorists, who are armed, through the city streets.
  • Handguns: Fired by the four "inductees" during training, and later used during a bank robbery (where a police officer shoots one of them and they fire back). Handguns are also used later to shoot and injure a man.
  • Machine Guns/Automatic Weapons: Brought to the group by Jonas and carried at various moments during the film.
  • Phrases: "Idiots," "Moron," "Scum," and "Screwed up" (all in subtitles).
  • The group kidnaps a government official to make a political statement.
  • A man holds another man's head underwater to make him talk.
  • None.
  • Several scenes have a mild amount of tension-filled music in them.
  • None.
  • 4 "f" words (1 used sexually), 1 "s" word, 1 S.O.B., and 2 uses of "Oh my God," and 1 use each of "For God's sakes," "Oh God" and "God" as exclamations (everything listed occurs in subtitles).
  • Renée briefly and somewhat suggestively dances with the embassy's head of security.
  • We see pictures from a Woodstock magazine and briefly see photos showing female bare butts and breasts.
  • Paulo and Maria passionately kiss on a bed (and it's somewhat implied that they have sex).
  • In an early montage, photos show some people smoking.
  • Paulo smokes quite often throughout the film, and Henrique and Jonas smoke a few times.
  • Some minor characters occasionally smoke.
  • The ambassador's wife must deal with his kidnaping.
  • The real life events upon which this film is based, and this production's accuracy in telling that story.
  • Using violence (kidnaping, etc...) as a means to a political end or to make a statement.
  • We see (what appears to be) archival footage showing violent demonstrations on the streets. The police club some people while others throw objects at soldiers, cars and buildings.
  • The group robs a bank at gunpoint. Outside, a police officer fires and hits one of them and the others return fire (but don't hit the officer).
  • A government agent holds a group member's head under water for long periods of time to persuade him to talk (momentarily lifting him up only to hit him in the stomach before dunking him again).
  • The group kidnaps the ambassador at gunpoint and one of them hits him on the head.
  • Jonas holds a gun to Elbrick's head and threatens to shoot him.
  • A man is shot as he tries to escape.
  • We hear the brief screaming sounds of a person being tortured (not seen).
  • We briefly see a man tied up (nearly in a ball) and hung on a horizontal pole (as a means of torture).

  • Reviewed January 23, 1998

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