Four Days in September tells the true story of the kidnapping in 1969 of the American Ambassador to Brazil. Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin) found himself the victim of Brazilian revolutionaries who demanded that certain political prisoners be freed in exchange for his safe return. Kept literally in the dark for four days while awaiting word from the government, Elbrick nevertheless manages to make some real contact with his captors. Although they resolutely try to remain anonymously committed to their cause above all else, the human element sneaks through with sympathy for their victim, as well as some eventual interactive coupling among the rebels.

This is powerful stuff but, like so many political abduction dramas, suffers from a certain static quality. It takes a real master to make the claustrophobia and loss of freedom engendered by such events absorbing onscreen. Past efforts, like Patty Hearst, have been limply enervating efforts, cinematically. Had Barreto delved more deeply into the background of the revolutionaries, as well as Elbrick, it would have been more gripping. We would have felt something for the characters. Instead, they're presented here in rather cardboard terms. Apart from the central figure of Fernando Gaberia (Pedro Cardoso), upon whose autobiographical book the film is based, the revolutionaries are amorphously fanatic figures. You never really see the wrenching poverty or social injustice that would make them choose this most uncompromising of paths. The bespectacled, nerd-ish Cardoso bears an amusing resemblance to the comedian Richard Belzer, and tries his best to convey the conflicting emotions of his reluctant anarchist. However, without a strong, emotionally detailed script to aid him, he succeeds in merely being suggestive. Fernanda Torres, who plays Maria, his romantic interest and the group's leader, has a ravaged, attractively strong presence, but her character's dramatic arc goes rather too abruptly from butch-severe termagant to melting woman-in-love. There's another woman (Claudia Abreu) involved, who seems to be little more than your standard-issue tomboy-ish little sexpot. The other men in their bunch are uniformly macho gun-swingers, with occasional pangs of conscience.

Arkin gives a committedly serious, dignified performance. It would have benefitted, however, from less stoic nobility and a tad more personal charm and sneaky survivalist wit befitting a real diplomat. Caroline Kava, as his wife, weeps forlornly for her husband's return and wears a rather unseemly assortment of trademark turbans. (It's been a long time since the actress thrilled this viewer with her brilliant performance in Richard Foreman's legendary Lincoln Center production of The Threepenny Opera.)

On the plus side, Barreto is undoubtedly a humanist and spares us the sight of the various tortures and horrors his characters undergo. (The movie would have been a numbing bloodbath in the hands of, say, Oliver Stone.) It's been very capably and elegantly photographed by Felix Monti, who uncannily achieves a Manet-esque quality in the interiors of the kidnappers' lair. Ex-Policeman Stewart Copeland contributes another of his bland music scores.

--David Noh