Four Days in September begins to the strains of Girl from Ipanema coupled with images of happy Brazilians in the early 1960s. These are replaced by footage, some of which appears to be archival, of demonstrations against the repressive military dictatorship that came to power in 1964. By 1969, college students, who could have been in those happy photos, were taking a stand against their government.
The movie follows a group of young people who join a revolutionary organization. Fernando (Pedro Cardosa) doesn’t fit in as well as the others. He breaks the rules by not admitting he knows one of his fellow revolutionaries (their leaders insist on using false real names, lest real names be given away under duress). He isn’t as good at shooting as the others, and is relegated to the role of getaway driver when they rob a bank. But he does come up with an idea to get the group the attention it wants: kidnap the American ambassador and use him to get their comrades released from prison.
One of the organization’s leaders, an experienced terrorist, complains that these are just middle class kids looking for adventure. Although they are sincere in their beliefs and willing to become criminals, these young people were getting more than they bargained for.
It’s the details that trip them up. The kidnaping goes off without a hitch, but is witnessed by a local resident who promptly calls the police. Later, a take-out food vendor identifies one of the group to the police (“if only they could cook...”, one of their pursuers remarks).
The presence of the ambassador (Alan Arkin) creates tensions within the group. Although he represents American imperialism, he is a decent person, a liberal, who views do not seem so far apart from those of his kidnappers. A bond forms between the ambassador and Fernando and another woman in the group. This contrasts with the hostility shown by the more hardened members, who question Fernando’s ability to kill the ambassador should the time come.
Despite the interesting elements, the movie falls short. Some of the dialogue seemed unnatural, as if it had been written for a narrator and not for actors having a conversation. The story also lost focus when delving into the personal life of a member of the secret police, who tries to justify his role as a torturer to his wife. Sticking to the counterpoint between the kidnappers and law enforcement would have made more sense. What could have been an intense drama was merely an interesting one.
Four Days in September has received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. I’m not sure it deserves that, but despite its shortcomings it raised interesting questions about the use of terrorism and it made me care about these young people 29 years ago who felt they had no other choice.