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Four Days in September, Bruno Barreto’s semidocumentary account of the 1969 kidnapping of the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil by a band of young Rio guerrillas, is improbably benign, a movie about terrorism suitable for family viewing.

Barreto opens with a montage of black-and-white news footage to place his docudrama in historical context. In 1964, Brazilian President João Goulart’s leftist regime was toppled by a military coup. Four years later, in response to growing civil unrest, the dictatorship suspended fundamental political, legal, and human rights and authorized a campaign of terror against suspected subversives. Groups of urban revolutionaries arose to resist the repressive government by a variety of means, including bombings, bank robberies, and kidnappings.

In screenwriter Leopoldo Serran’s loose adaptation of Fernando Gabeira’s autobiographical memoir What’s Up, Comrade?, Fernando (Pedro Cardoso), a journalist, and three other young idealists join the October 8th Revolutionary Movement (MR-8), a small cell headed by hard-bitten Maria (Fernanda Torres). Abandoning families, friends, and previous identities, they move into a collective apartment and train for guerrilla warfare. Their first action, a daylight bank robbery, proves successful, though one of their members, Fernando’s friend César (Selton Mello), is wounded, captured, and tortured.

Emboldened by the bank heist, the members of MR-8 embark on a more daring mission. On Sept. 4, 1969, they abduct Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin), promising his safe return in exchange for the release of 15 political prisoners and the media broadcast of their manifesto. If these stipulations are not met within four days, their hostage will be executed. The group’s hideaway, a rented villa, is uncovered by secret service agents who are poised to close in just as the government capitulates to the cell’s demands. Elbrick is spared, and the guerrillas are subsequently imprisoned and tortured. In an ironic coda, nine months later they are released and exiled as part of the settlement of another political kidnapping.

To date, Barreto’s most popular films—1978’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and 1983’s Gabriela—have been romantic sex comedies exploiting the scenic splendors of Brazil and Sonia Braga. His more recent English-language efforts—A Show of Force (1990) and Carried Away (1996), both starring his wife Amy Irving—passed largely unnoticed by critics and moviegoers. In Four Days in September, he brings a humanistic perspective to a subject that Costa-Gavras and other overtly political filmmakers would have turned into blatant agitprop. In a rather clumsy effort to be evenhanded, Barreto includes a subplot in which a patriotic secret service operative (Marco Ricca) agonizes over the brutality he inflicts. For balance, the director wryly underscores the naive ineptitude and squeamishness of the bourgeois revolutionaries. Their lazy reliance on carry-out pizzas and chickens tips off authorities to the location of their hideout. Fernando, assigned to be Elbrick’s executioner, fears that he will be unequal to the task, and even flinty Maria begins showing signs of indecision and vulnerability. Barreto himself approaches inherently gruesome material with hedging reticence. No lives are taken, and the few torture sequences are discreetly bloodless.

Although visually atmospheric—the vibrant colors of Rio are overcast by the beige shadow of repression—and expressively acted by the courtly Arkin and an ensemble of Brazilian performers, Four Days in September is peculiarly lightweight and soft-centered. Barreto’s compassionate tone neutralizes his halfhearted efforts at engineering suspense. His objectivity speaks less of political engagement than nostalgia, at times approaching the serio-comic detachment of a Brazilian Graffiti, especially in the printed closing titles outlining the characters’ fates. Compared with Jean-Luc Godard’s uncompromising La Chinoise (1967), in which bourgeois French students attempt to form a Maoist cell, Barreto’s movie is kid stuff. Formally innovative and prophetic in anticipating the 1968 civil uprisings in Paris, La Chinoise forced viewers to examine their ideological beliefs and aesthetic preconceptions. All Barreto aims for is a comforting, user-friendly portrait of a wholesome gang that, despite its inability to shoot straight, achieves its goals without bloodshed.

Lenin (who knew that “you can’t make a revolution in white gloves)” and Mao (who cautioned that “a revolution is not a dinner party”) would be nonplused by Barreto’s civility, but the apolitical MTV generation may well perceive Four Days in September as a radical gesture. If so, they (and we) are in big trouble.

Coincidentally, Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh also begins in a climate of repression. It’s January 1970, and Franco’s government has declared a State of Exception in Spain, suspending a catalog of liberties. On the night of this proclamation, a prostitute gives birth to the film’s protagonist, Victor (Liberto Rabal), aboard an off-duty bus.

As readers familiar with Almodovar’s work can safely assume, this sequence is hardly a prelude to a political protest movie. The ribald writer-director’s contempt for totalitarianism is primarily spurred by its suppression of sexual expression, drug-taking, and other hedonistic pursuits. Once again, he has created a steamy tale uneasily perched somewhere between melodrama and black comedy.

The screenplay, adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel, is much too convoluted to summarize. Following the prologue, Almodóvar leaps forward 20 years to find Victor in an altercation involving Elena (Francesca Neri), the drugged-out daughter of an Italian diplomat, and two plainclothes policemen—alcoholic, cuckolded Sancho (Jose Sancho) and his younger partner David (Javier Bardem). In the melee, one of the cops is wounded. Victor is convicted of the shooting and sentenced to a six-year prison term. Upon his release, fate reunites him with the parties responsible for his incarceration. Paralyzed as a result of the shooting, David has become a Special Olympics basketball champion and has married Elena, who has cleaned up her act and runs a children’s shelter. Clara (Angela Molina), a woman Victor picks up while visiting his mother’s grave site, turns out to be Sancho’s embittered, promiscuous wife. Driven by passion, guilt, revenge, and destiny, these characters intersect, resulting in redemption for some and death for others.

It’s hard to resist pointing out the parallels between Almodovar’s career and that of our own John Waters. Both achieved notoriety with outrageous films that transgressed standards of cinematic decorum (Law of Desire/Pink Flamingos) then went mainstream with more restrained efforts (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown/Hairspray). Now, both appear to be lost in the limbo between provocation and respectability. Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and High Heels and Waters’ Cry-Baby and Serial Mom have disappointed the filmmakers’ early enthusiasts as well as the audiences that embraced their subsequent, sanitized movies. They are not equally accomplished filmmakers; Waters has yet to develop more than rudimentary directorial skills, whereas Almodóvar consistently exhibits a masterful control of color, music, composition, and camera movement. At this point, both talk better movies than they are capable of making—Waters in cheeky interviews and media appearances and Almodóvar in the thoughtful, articulate essays that accompany the premieres of his films.

Vividly visualized and energetically performed, Live Flesh offers Almodóvar’s latter-day mix of swoony romanticism and R-rated licentiousness (matter-of-fact drug use, Elena performing oral sex in a bathtub on her paraplegic mate). The director’s devotees are likely to regard it as a diluted version of the heady cocktails he once stirred. Others will probably be left wondering why he enjoys such an enviable international reputation. Played as dark, over-the-top camp farce, Live Flesh could have been disreputably amusing. The same tangled plot line, treated with the empathy Douglas Sirk invested in his ’50s melodramas, might have proved emotionally affecting. Almodóvar can’t quite figure out what to do with his material, a confusion nakedly exposed by a fatuously sentimental Christmas epilogue in which Victor’s child is born, also in a moving vehicle, “into a much better country than his father.” A decade ago, who would have predicted that this liberatingly libidinous Spaniard would end up shamelessly shucking Capra corn?CP