'Four Days' Grapples With Political Violence

International politics are in the news, and on movie screens as well.

"Welcome to Sarajevo," which opened recently, explores moral, ethical, and professional dilemmas raised by the Bosnian war as experienced by journalists from various countries. Now a somewhat less gritty film, "Four Days in September," tells the fact-based story of a politically driven Brazilian kidnapping.

It's no coincidence that both pictures are released by Miramax Films, which seems more willing than some other movie distributors to present stories about times, places, and situations too remote or troubling to be considered marketable by most Hollywood studios.

Alan Arkin plays Charles Burke Elbrick, who was American ambassador to Brazil in the late 1960s, when the country was ruled by a military regime widely deplored for its oppressive attitudes and brutal behaviors.

Desperate to attract public attention to their antigovernment cause, a group of young militants - idealistic in their motivations, but frequently callow and even naive in their political views - decide to abduct Elbrick and hold him hostage. He will be released if their demands are met, executed if the regime won't cooperate.

What sets "Four Days in September" apart from many tales of political violence is its desire to portray the militants as fully rounded individuals rather than either stereotypical villains, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals, or one-dimensional heroes, sacrificing normal lives for the sake of their cause.

Another asset is Arkin's restrained yet affecting performance as the ambassador. Around the time when this '60s story takes place, Arkin was making his first major mark on Hollywood with a series of mannered portrayals that often promised more than they delivered. But in '90s pictures like "Havana" and "Mother Night," he has emerged as a mature and thoughtful actor who can raise even contrived or melodramatic moments to unexpectedly high emotional levels. He does this again in "Four Days in September," even though much of the story calls on him to do little more than sit, wait, and brood.

Other aspects of the picture are less successful. Its effort to humanize the militants is undermined by bits of shaky acting, and some twists of the plot and dialogue are familiar from too many earlier movies. More important, the film's attitude toward the Brazilian military regime is regrettably vague, making the militants' motives harder to grasp than they would be if the government's misdeeds were more fully aired.

The movie was directed by Bruno Barreto, a member of Brazil's historically important Cinema Novo group. He hasn't had a major intercontinental hit since "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" two decades ago, and while "Four Days in September" isn't likely to break box-office records, it's a good vehicle for reintroducing his name and renewing his reputation with American viewers.

The screenplay is based on an autobiographical book by Fernando Gaberia, who took part in the actual kidnapping and is today a journalist and Brazilian congressman. Pedro Cardoso and Caroline Kava head the supporting cast. In all, "Four Days in September" may be a little too unusual and ambiguous for mass-audience popularity, but its underlying seriousness makes it worth welcoming despite its flaws.

* Rated R. Contains violence, vulgar language, and a frequently menacing atmosphere.

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