Four Days in September (O Que É Isso, Companheiro?)
From time to time I think about writing a novel based on my experiences in the American Trotskyist movement. I have never followed through on this project because deep down I realize that the beliefs of the people in this movement were too different from those of ordinary Americans. How could I possibly convey the reality of revolutionary politics to people who view politics as nothing more than what they do on election day?
The makers of "Four Days in September" faced a similar problem. How could they make a film based on the characters and events depicted in Fernando Gabeira's book "O que é isso, companheiro" (What's Up Comrade?) and still draw an audience? Gabeira was a member of a Brazilian terrorist cell that kidnapped the American Ambassador Charles Elrick in September, 1969. They sought to protest the military dictatorship that had just seized power, and win freedom for imprisoned comrades.
Director Bruno Barreto, best known for his "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands," simply decided to dump the politics to make the film palatable. "I did not make a film about politics but about human beings. I did not make a film about ideas, but about the fears, desires and tensions involved in a specific episode. Besides, no one would be able to stand to listen to the actual way the terrorists spoke at the time."
Without politics, the film becomes a banal crime melodrama. Except for the occasional rhetorical flourish about the "Revolution," the characters mainly discuss the technical details of the kidnapping. To sustain the audience's interest, Barreto emphasizes human relationships that have little to do with politics. There is a budding romance between Maria [Fernanda Torres], the ringleader, and Gabeira [Pedro Cardoso]. A filial bond develops between Gabeira and Elrick [Alan Arkin] who turns out to be a liberal opposed to the war in Vietnam and the military dictatorship in Brazil. A key scene shows Gabeira allowing Elrick to view him with his mask off, thereby revealing his humanity.
Gabeira develops a crush on Maria when he is first sworn into the terrorist cell. During the ceremony, she harangues the young recruits. She assigns them each a nom de guerre: Fernando Gabeira then becomes "Paulo." Along with their real names, they must leave behind all normal human feelings that they had in their previous life. This scene evokes the witch-hunt iconography of potboilers like the 1951 classic "I Was A Communist For the FBI." These propaganda pieces inevitably include a fanatical but beautiful female Communist cell leader who makes speeches about how love is a bourgeois diversion.
In the production notes, Fernanda Torres is contemptuous of the character she plays. She says, "Maria was sort of a 'sergeant' in the group, and, to my mind, the least credible character in the script. I wasn't alive when the kidnapping took place so I can't be sure if militant political women really behaved like that." One can only wonder why Torres accepted the role if she has so little identification with the character and shows so little interest in finding out about what made such a character tick. Perhaps there is no tradition of method acting in Brazil. According to the principles method acting, character portrayal grows out the totality of the character's social relations. The actor must try to go beyond the dimensions of the script and immerse him or herself in the social milieu of the character. This might mean driving a cab if the character is a cabdriver. Of course, such background research would have done little to add depth to a character whose dialog consists mainly of worries over whether the kidnapping will be carried out successfully, punctuated by tone-deaf "radical" rhetoric.
After a major bank robbery, Maria's gang decides to kidnap the American Ambassador. Such an operation requires outside assistance so they call in Toledo [Nelson Dantas] and Jonas [Matheus Nachtegaele], two veterans of the terrorist movement. Toledo is a man in his sixties who fought in the Spanish Civil War, while Jonas is a young working-class militant who is even more unsmiling and case-hardened than Maria herself. Jonas, who takes over the operation, warns the rest of the group that he will shoot anybody who disobeys his orders. For the remainder of the film, Toledo and Jonas are absorbed in the technical details of the kidnapping and we never discover who they really are or what they believe.
In a letter to his wife, Elrick confesses his inability to understand the fanaticism of Jonas. It never would have occurred to Leopoldo Serran, the screenwriter, to fill in some background on such a character. Like the rest of the people associated with the project, he was hostile to leftist politics. He kept resisting Barreto's invitation to write a script based on Gabeira's memoir. "I refused several times, because I disagreed with many of the leftist principles and practices, and I could not agree to do anything complimentary or biased."
Perhaps Serran might have fleshed out such a character by studying the life of one of Brazil's most famous workers, Lula of the Workers Party. He was the youngest of 8 children born to subsistence farmers. In 1956, the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the back of a bar and shared the bathroom with bar customers. Lula, unlike the terrorists of the 1969 generation, became the leader of a mass social movement. The same sense of indignation that committed him to peaceful change, however, must have fueled Jonas. It would have made for a much richer film if Jonas spoke openly about the circumstances that led him to such extremist politics.
Toledo, admittedly a secondary character, only speaks about his doubts over the success of the kidnapping. It would have been interesting to find out something about the life of a character old enough to be a grandfather, who has decided to take such drastic measures. (It is rather dubious that a Spanish Civil War veteran would have ever joined a terrorist plot, since these activists had an orientation to mass action. We would be asking too much from a film that had so little interest in politics to try to explain this anomaly)
Serran's enthusiasm is not for characters like these with their obnoxious left-wing politics. He invests all of his power as a playwright into the character of Henrique [Marco Ricca], the cop in charge of capturing the kidnappers. Henrique feels torn between duty and revulsion over the torture he carries out against revolutionaries in the basement of his police station as part of his job. For Serran, there is a sexual aspect to torture which is reflected in the script. Henrique mentions to his partner that a political prisoner has fallen in love with and married one Pecanha, a cop who tortured her. That Serran would even consider such an event as within the realm of possibility shows how detached he is from the reality of police repression. One can only hope that he never accepts an assignment to write a screenplay based on Tomas Borge's memoir. Somoza's torturers beat this Sandinista leader in the testicles repeatedly during his imprisonment until he lost his manhood.
Ultimately "Four Days in September" is repression without violence. It represses the real beliefs and the real motivations of the terrorist band, as much as a gag over the mouth of a prisoner does. As difficult as it would have been to translate the lives of terrorists into a commercially viable film, a production company with some sympathy for the left should have made the attempt. The director, the screenwriter and the actors are all complicit in covering up the history of the desperate and marginal Brazilian urban underground. The key to an authentic and dramatically convincing film would have been in uncovering the history of each character. Without such histories, the overall history of the times remains a mystery.