Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Four Days in September

Four Days in September posterFour Days in September (1997) is based on Fernando Gabeira's book O Que E Isso, Companheiro? (What is this, Comrade?), which tells the true story of his involvement in the kidnapping of American Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick in September of 1969. The kidnapping was an act of resistance to the military regime that had been in power since 1964, and Gabeira's involvement in it has left him unable to acquire an American visa and enter the United States since '69. After the kidnapping, Gabeira was exiled from Brazil until the regime ended in 1979. He is now an active Brazilian politician who helped found the Brazilian Green Party and is a federal deputy for the state of Rio de Janeiro.

The film begins with a montage of black and white pictures of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s, with the song "Garota de Ipanema" playing in the background. The viewer is informed of the 1964 military coup and the subsequent suspension of civil rights and freedoms by the junta in 1968. The first scene shows the streets of Rio full of protesters, yelling for the end of dictatorship. Among them is young Fernando Gabeira. Following this are scenes of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and the celebration at the American Embassy in Rio, where Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick cuts a cake in the shape of the moon and is congratulated by Brazilian diplomats. Fernando and his friends Cesar and Arturo are watching the space transmission on T.V., pointing out critically that the United States is using their space program as a weapon in the Cold War. It is clear that these three young men are Communists, the very kind abhorred by the military government. When the T.V. is turned off, Cesar and Fernando inform Arturo that they are joining the armed resistance against the military government, and that they would like him to join. Arturo refuses, saying he does not want to risk his life. The following scene shows members of the official resistance movement blindfolding Fernando and taking him to a safe house, where he is introduced to his fellow recruits in the radical leftist MR-8 organization. They are all introduced under false names. The group consists of a pretty young woman, Renee, and three young men, Julio, Oswaldo, and Brandao. Oswaldo is Cesar's false name, but Cesar and Fernando pretend not to know each other. The leaders of the group are the beautiful tough-talking Comrade Maria and the muscular Marcao. Fernando falls in love with Maria at first sight. The revolutionaries' job is to forget their old lives, their friends and family, and fight the military dictatorship by creating civil unrest using guerrilla tactics. Their first job is a bank heist, which is successful except for the fact that Cesar is captured by the police after being shot in the leg while trying to escape. He is tortured and interrogated by secret service agent Henrique, but since he knows only false names, the interrogation is useless. The members of MR-8 are frustrated with the lack of media coverage their bank heist has received, and realize they must do something of more consequence to get attention for their cause. Fernando comes up with the idea of kidnapping the American Ambassador, which is sure to get international media coverage.

Experienced guerrilla fighters Jonas and Toledo join the group and help plan the kidnapping. Renee makes a contact with the head of security for the American Embassy in order to get the necessary information for the job. When the group has set up a safe house and been provided with the necessary supplies, they execute the kidnapping, blockading the Ambassador's limousine and taking him blindfolded to the safe house. Their demands to the military government are the release and transport to Mexico of 15 political prisoners, including Cesar. If these demands are not met within 48 hours, the ambassador will be killed. The following hours are stressful and strange for the kidnappers, who sit silently in the house, sweating, and waiting. During this period, Maria gives in to Fernando's advances and they have a passionate encounter. The Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick is revealed to be a very educated, kindly, and courageous man, for whom Fernando and Renee especially have much sympathy. He is treated kindly by all the kidnappers, who wear black hoods over their heads so that he cannot see their faces. Elbrick is allowed to write a letter to his wife to prove that he is alive, as well as being given food and drink. Fernando spends some time talking with him about politics, a conversation which convinces Elbrick that his kidnappers are just young kids caught up in an ideological fervour, and fundamentally good people. Jonas and Toledo question Elbrick, using Fernando as a translator, and ask him if the U.S. supports the military government. Elbrick answers that the United States does not support any non-democratically elected governments, and that military juntas are supposed to be in place for a short time only. This answer pleases the kidnappers. The news reports MR-8's actions favourably, reading out their demands to the public. This makes the group very happy, their political message finally being transmitted country-wide. When Fernando goes to get some food at a nearby pizza place, the taxi driver who gives him a ride tells him that the kidnappers are heroes for the Brazilian people.

Unbeknownst to Fernando, the purchase of a large number of pizzas raises suspicion, and the police are informed. This leads the secret service to discover the location of the safe house. They do not, however, invade, because they are afraid the Ambassador will be killed. As the deadline for the ransom approaches, the kidnappers must decide who will kill the Ambassador, and none of them wants to do it. Jonas, who hates Fernando, instructs Fernando to do it. Minutes before the deadline, the authorities contact the group and agree to their demands. Fernando and the Ambassador are relieved that no one has to get hurt. The following day, television footage of the 15 political prisoners arriving at a Mexican airport convinces the kidnappers that their work is done. They prepare the Ambassador for his release. Renee has washed his clothes and helps him get dressed. When he is ready, they drive to the Maracana Stadium, where a soccer game has just taken place, to release him. On the way, the secret service follows them in a car, but a police vehicle cuts the secret service off, insisting that the Ambassador return home safely. Elbrick is released among the crowds of soccer fans, and the kidnappers escape unscathed. In a touching scene, Elbrick is reunited with his wife Elvira, who is sick with worry. For the following month, the kidnappers must remain completely in hiding, but Fernando is so desperate to see Maria that he goes to her house to spend some time with her. At this point, the police barge in and capture both young people. Eight months later, however, another resistance group kidnaps the German Ambassador and demands the release of Fernando and his comrades. The demands are met, and Fernando, Maria, and the rest of the kidnappers are sent to Algeria. They are granted political asylum in Britain. Democracy returns to Brazil in 1989.

The Communist ideology that pervades this film portrays a very leftist-oriented Brazil. The leftist movement in Brazil is strengthened and intensified by the opposite reactionary traits of the military government, a strength that has remained in Brazil until today. The backlash against the military government in the film is a stronger foundation for this Communism than is the Cold War; in no part of the film do the revolutionaries allude to the Soviet Union or Marxism. Theirs is a unique Latin American leftist movement. However, in order for this movement to gain a voice, it must involve itself with a main actor in the Cold War, the United States. Unexpectedly, the capitalist pig that the young communist kidnappers expected in the Ambassador turns out to be a dignified, kind, and intelligent man with whom they can discuss their ideological views. And so the Cold War is shown to be an absurd concept in Latin America, a war that is largely irrelevant to the social and political dynamics of its nations and only causes damage with its rhetoric. The film shows a Latin American left which is not related to the Cold War, but to the nature of its people.

The fact that the Ambassador's kidnapping is the main cause for attention to the resistance movement in Brazil shows that the United States is of central importance to politics in Latin America. Brazil's plight seems to be ignored by the world until America is involved. The film puts emphasis on the validity of the Brazilian struggle, and of Latin American politics in general, with or without the United States' involvement. The fact that the Ambassador is truly external to the Brazilian political conflict of the 60s and 70s implies that the United States does not belong in Latin American politics because it too is fundamentally external to Latin America's political environment.

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