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Bruno Barreto was a Rio de Janeiro 14-year-old in 1969, the year leftists kidnapped American ambassador to Brazil Charles Elbrick, and he speaks of the period vividly. “In Brazil, in 1969, if you were a student, if you had any ideas against the government, you lived in fear,” he says dramatically.
“You could be turned in and then arrested when you least expected it. If someone overheard you saying bad things about the government, just by walking behind you on the street, they could follow you, see where you lived, maybe find out your name from the doorman, then maybe later that day or the following morning some people would show up at your door and say, ‘Follow us,’ and you would be arrested. That’s how bad it was.”
It was not bad enough, however, to convince Barreto to act against the military government, which was established by a 1964 coup d’etat. “I’ve never been into politics,” says the director of Four Days in September, the new account of Elbrick’s kidnapping. “I’ve never been politically engaged. I was an observer. I felt like a reporter. I was against the government, of course. But something always kept me back. I never got involved.”
As Barreto sits in the ornate lobby of the Carlton Hotel, wearing the international art-film director’s uniform of all black (but not matching) jacket, pants, and shirt, the politics of ’60s and ’70s Latin America do seem distant. Although best known for the arty Brazilian sex comedy Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Barreto has lived in the United States for most of this decade and speaks with an accent that seems entirely Americanized save an inability to pronounce “th.” As if to prove that the era of gringo-go-home is a faint memory, sitting next to him on the couch is Valerie Elbrick Hanlon, the daughter of the kidnapped ambassador.
Four Days in September is based on a book by Fernando Gabeira, now the head of Brazil’s Green Party. He was one of Elbrick’s kidnappers, although he didn’t have the major role that his fictionalized counterpart plays in the movie. For his part in the kidnapping, he is banned from entering the U.S.
“Fernando’s book is a memoir, a reflection about what it was like to be a left-wing militant in the ’60s,” explains Barreto. “It takes place all in his head. So it was very hard to adapt that to the screen, to translate a monologue into drama. Because drama is character interaction, friction, conflict. We didn’t have that. So we had to do a lot of research to give us the drama we needed. I wanted to tell the story through the characters, not through mix-and-match styles [in the manner of Oliver Stone]. That was very much a film narrative decision. It wasn’t a political decision. All the films I’ve made are character-driven. I didn’t want to tell anything I couldn’t tell through the characters.”
Barreto concedes he could have added more political contextfor example, of the conflicts between the American and Brazilian governments over how to deal with the kidnappers: “I could have shown that, with newsreel footage and all that. But that’s not the kind of film I wanted to do.”
The director is careful to note that many left-wing opponents of the Brazilian military government were opposed to tactics like kidnapping and thus have no stake in any contemporary depiction of the event. Still, he admits, “A small part of the Brazilian left today thinks the film is too soft. The irony is that, had this film been made by Hollywood, which has a very black-and-white way of staging things, that small part of the Brazilian left would have liked it more. Because it would have portrayed the kidnappers are heroes and the military as villains. But for me, that wouldn’t been good drama. For me, good drama is when the enemy says something that makes sense.”
The enemy to which Barreto refers is Four Days in September’s secret-police torturer, Henrique. “Of course, that is a very controversial character,” he says. “A torturer is someone who is a monster. But I didn’t want him to be a cardboard villain. I think that it’s chilling when he says that if they get into powermeaning the left-wing groupit’s not only going to be torture, it’s going to be executions. Isn’t it chilling when someone you think is a monster says something that is true? Because you cannot deny thatit has happened. Cuba, Cambodia, North Korea. It’s a fact. It doesn’t surprise me that the character is so controversial. But I think that’s good; I think that’s rich. It adds texture to the story.
“I didn’t want this to be a political film,” Barreto adds. “I don’t believe in ideology. I don’t believe in politics. I believe in individuals. So I wanted this film to be about the people in it. All of them. Not only one side.
“I wanted people to relate to the film on an emotional level. I didn’t want the audience to connect on a rational level. It’s a thriller. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a history class.”
Barreto, who now lives in New York, did do historical research for the film in Washington, where he first met Hanlon. She loaned him her father’s copy of Gabeira’s book, with his comments in the margins, and introduced him to Americans who had worked at the embassy during the period. “Her first reaction was jealousy,” recalls the director, “because [the kidnappers] were going to have her father only for them, and she hadn’t had him only for her.”
“That was really your idea,” Hanlon interrupts, laughing. “You said you would have liked to kidnap your father.”
“That was my idea?” the director marvels. “OK, good. That’s my perception. It’s great that she’s here. It’s
“She also talked about how her father was very formal, very composed,” Barreto continues. “To get dressed for him was like a ritual. So that became a scene in the movie. When he met [Hanlon] after the kidnapping, he gave her a hug. So he was different. He had changed. That experience had made him more physical, more affectionate.”
After deciding to show Elbrick’s meticulous character with the dressing scene, Barreto thought, “We need the other end of the spectrum, the payoff of this. What could be the worst thing that happens to a man who starts his day getting dressed like that? And the writer said, ‘If he soiled himself.’ And that’s how we had the idea of the incontinence [when Elbrick thinks he’s about to be shot]. That actually didn’t happen.”
Now the executive director of the Washington Bach Consort, Hanlon worked in film production for a time and says she understood that the movie would not be strictly factual. “I knew that some other person was going to play my father; it wasn’t going to be my father.” She calls the film “brilliant” but admits with a laugh that she was taken aback by the incontinence scene. It also surprised her “that my father was so sympathetically treated” by the film, in which Elbrick expresses his sympathy for the kidnappers’ cause and states his personal disapproval of American support for dictatorships.
“That was all in the book, I must say,” notes Barreto. “Your father said he was very well treated by the kidnappers. That was a fact. Everything that he says about Vietnam, about the American government supporting the Brazilian governmentthat was in the book. I did speak to some other people, and they said Elbrick was a true American liberal. He spoke his mind.”
The New York Times recently reported that Elbrick’s conversations with the kidnappers, revealed after he was freed, damaged his State Department career. “I have no knowledge of that,” responds Hanlon. “I don’t know where that comes from. When I read that in the newspaper, that was the first time I heard of it. He did have difficulty with the Brazilian military government after the kidnapping.”
“That’s something we never could get to the bottom of,” says Barreto. “That’s all speculation. I didn’t need it anyway. The film I wanted to do wasn’t about that. I didn’t want to make a film about politics.”
Four Days in September is certainly not about politics, which some commentators have found unseemly. “The main regime here is that of nostalgia,” remarked Village Voice critic J. Hoberman. Barreto, however, considers
“With the end of the Cold War,” he muses, “I think everybody sees what happened then differently. If you look at it today, it’s absurd to think that Brazil was going to turn into a communist country. But at the time, with what had happened in Cuba just a little over 10 years before, it made sense, I guess. Today it just looks silly. Things were very polarized at the time.”
The director now dismisses as dated such leftist movies about Latin American politics as Missing. Munching on fancy snacks from the tea tray, Barreto seems content in the post-ideological world. “Reality,” he concludes, “has caught up with my point of view.”