Most political films tell you whom to root for and how to root for them, but Bruno Barreto’s very fine, semifictionalized Brazilian docudrama Four Days in September is driven by a fantastic ambivalence. In the late summer of 1969, a ragtag group of young middle-class revolutionaries, incensed at the military crackdown on civil rights, kidnap the U.S. ambassador in Rio de Janeiro and demand, in exchange, the release of 15 political prisoners. In the largest sense, the terrorists are justified — they’re trying to halt a regime rooted in systematic police torture. Yet they’re also arrogant and myopic (at times, they rival the Symbionese Liberation Army for sheer hapless bravado), and the crazy daring of their plan requires that they discipline themselves with a cold-blooded absolutism that flirts with the very fascism they’re fighting.
Beneath its deceptively sardonic, existential surface, the film captures the galvanic intensity of precise physical and moral encounters. Barreto wants us to understand everyone on screen, from the haughty former student activist Fernando (Pedro Cardoso), who awkwardly tries to link his ideology with the will to commit violence, to the paramilitary leftist Maria (Fernanda Torres), a sheep in renegade’s clothing. As the ambassador, a good liberal all too aware that his decency won’t save him, Alan Arkin has a stoic elegance. A-