"Four Days in September," "The Education of Little Tree," and "Great Expectations."
By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Noel Murray
FEBRUARY 16, 1998: Four Days in September, this year's Best Foreign Film nominee from Brazil, has little of the hyped-up shaky-cam "verit" that's become such a clich in political thrillers; it derives its tension from the quiet, relentless ticking away of downtime. Bruno Barreto's film concerns a true event in Rio de Janeiro in September 1969, when a band of young revolutionaries, the MR-8, decided to challenge the civil-liberties crackdown of Brazil's military dictatorship. To command the world's attention, the group seized Charles Elbrick, the American ambassador to Brazil, and demanded the release of 15 political prisoners within 48 hours--or Elbrick's execution would follow.
Working from a book by Fernando Gabeira, one of the young commandos, Barreto and screenwriter Leopoldo Serran paint the kidnapping as the eruption of global and national hostilities at street level. In brisk expository scenes, the movie touches on the converging hostilities the dictatorship's squelching of dissent, the resentment of American influence and paternalism in Latin America. On TV, Neil Armstrong plants the U.S. flag on the moon; as Elbrick presides over an official celebration, a student watching the landing at home notes that space isn't even safe from American intervention. The moon-shaped cake at Elbrick's party looks like a bomb with a lit fuse.
The movie succeeds most at capturing the jittery fervor of the untested revolutionaries, who are alternately terrified and thrilled to put their rhetoric into practice. Anxious to prove he's more than a middle-class dilettante--and to please his firebrand comrade Maria (Fernanda Torres)--the journalist code-named Paulo (Pedro Cardoso) throws himself into the plotting of the attack, staged daringly in broad daylight (a suspenseful, well-edited scene). Instead of the gringo reactionary they expect, however, Elbrick, played by Alan Arkin, turns out to be an urbane, principled diplomat with a common distaste for the abuse of democracy. As government storm troopers close in and the deadline nears, Paulo wonders if he can put a gun to Elbrick's head if the time comes. The time comes.
Best known for his 1978 sex farce Doņa Flor and Her Two Husbands, Barreto does a good job of ratcheting up the tension among the nervous comrades and their apprehensive prey without resorting to melodrama. He emphasizes the strain of sharing living space under life-or-death pressure and constant surveillance, which makes even buying groceries a risky task. He also keeps the many complex relationships and motivations admirably clear.
But Four Days in September is way too cautious for a movie about revolution. The script fails to dramatize the sense of oppression that would lead to such desperate acts: A flash of stock riot footage is our only indication of how daily life is disrupted by the hated regime. Apart from a glimpse of political torture, the movie is too timid to name names or to specify outrages, even though the military dictatorship that ousted President Jo-o Goulart in 1964 was said to be responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. Barreto has said in interviews that he intended the film to present all sides of the conflict in 1969 Brazil, but the lack of an overt political stance mutes the emotional impact of the story's outcome.
To its credit, though, Barreto's drama avoids agitprop speechmaking and espionage-thriller clichs. And its moral stance, which refuses to condone terrorism in the name of either oppression or democracy, has quiet integrity. Four Days in September may be a minor addition to the world's political cinema--if it were stronger, you can bet it wouldn't be up for an Oscar--but its naive revolutionaries, guilt-ridden police, and conscientious victims still show how public policies register on a private scale.
Parents who are tired of taking their kids to see the same formulaic, focus-group-tested children's movies should welcome The Education of Little Tree with open arms. Unlike standard kids' fare, which expunges every hint of controversy (and therefore of reality), this story brings to life moral and historical questions without resorting to preaching. It's the kind of movie parents should see with their children--and be prepared to answer questions about later.
Based on the award-winning novel by Forrest Carver, the film tells the story of an orphaned 8-year-old boy, Little Tree, whose white grandfather and Cherokee grandmother take him to the Great Smoky Mountains in 1935. Grandpa (James Cromwell) enlists the boy's help in the moonshine business, while Grandma (Tantoo Cardinal) and her Cherokee friend Willow John (Graham Greene) teach him about their tribe's history and ways. Although the mountain abounds with revenuers and rattlesnakes, the real danger is the government, which wants to erase the Indian culture. Little Tree is sent to an Indian school where the students are forbidden to speak any language but English and are punished for knowing the mating habits of deer.
Our self-analyzing culture has trouble dealing with moral ambiguity and avoids explaining shades of gray to youngsters, but these situations give The Education of Little Tree its ring of truth. To Grandpa, his lawbreaking is justified because of unjust taxes; to Willow John, resistance to authority carries on the noble tradition of the Trail of Tears. The film's most suspenseful moment comes when Little Tree screams to his unseen jailers at the Indian school that he's sorry for the deed that caused his punishment, even though he doesn't know what he did. Will he forget his heritage and name to save himself, or does he realize that more is at stake?
Adult audiences may quibble with the film's anti-authoritarian tendencies (a bombastic senator is an early figure of fun), and they may disagree with the implicit values of Little Tree's upbringing. But these are not reasons to avoid the film; they are opportunities to have conversations about it outside the theater. Whatever the shortcomings of the film's worldview, it achieves a rare consistency and conviction in communicating that worldview to its audience; in an era of hedged bets at the theater, that alone is laudable.
Children may not understand or appreciate these subtleties at a conscious level right away, but the movie will stick with them as one of those special occasions when something truthful about the world breaks into their sheltered upbringing. Anastas Michos' beautiful photography of endless, misty hills arouses in the viewer the youthful wish for a secret, untouched place of perfect peace. The moving ending to The Education of Little Tree acknowledges that physical places house the soul, but also that growing up means learning to carry one's secret place into an alien land. After watching the film, your child may feel a little braver about her own journey into the future.
Not so great
About halfway through Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations, Ethan Hawke's character Finnegan Bell storms out of a cocktail party, pushes down a well-wisher, sidesteps a roving opera singer, and runs through the rain to a Chinese restaurant, where he pulls his childhood love (Gwyneth Paltrow) away from a cozy dinner with her fianc (Hank Azaria) and asks her to dance. In the foreground, a pair of hands sets down twin platters of Moo Goo Gai Pan. Order up!
For those five minutes of film, Great Expectations breathes the same air as Baz Luhrmann's delirious adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Both films set a well-known story in an era slightly out of time, in a world that is recognizable yet outsized and surreal; but where Luhrmann's R + J kept pushing its source material until it changed (for better and worse) into a pop fever dream, Cuaron's take on Dickens only flies off into the ether occasionally and otherwise remains agonizingly bland. Hawke and Paltrow never generate any heat, and their storybook romance has all the fated glamour of mannequins tossed together on a storeroom floor.
Then again, the actors or the director don't get much help from Mitch Glazer's script, which arbitrarily changes the names and situations in Dickens' novel while failing to put across the book's theme of a love doomed by class envy and a legacy of romantic cruelty. But that doesn't excuse Hawke's "shout-'n'-pout" acting style, or Paltrow's constant look of disinterest, which starts as a character trait and becomes indicative of her commitment to the film as a whole.
The stars do escape Great Expectations with some dignity--unlike poor Robert DeNiro and Anne Bancroft, who overact like crazy in their roles of, respectively, a mysterious criminal and an eccentric old maid. In fact, only three artists can claim any glory from this fairly pointless update--Hank Azaria (who performs with touching sincerity), Francisco Clemente (whose beautiful, aggressive sketches stand-in for Finn's), and the British pop group Pulp (whose "Like a Friend" drives the film's exciting nude modeling scene).
Which leaves Alfonso Cuaron, the director who made magic two years ago with his lovely presentation of the children's novel A Little Princess. One can feel him goosing this new film along from time to time--using exaggerated angles, colors, and camera moves to push Great Expectations to the edge of glorious parody. In scenes like the one at the Chinese restaurant, Cuaron seems to be riffing on Dickensian plots and the silly conventions of romantic films. Unfortunately, none of Cuaron's collaborators seem as enthusiastic about his vision, and these Expectations go unmet.
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