At first blush it might not seem that a hostage crisis on a bus in Brazil would lend itself to feature documentary treatment, but Jose Padilha has turned it into a gripping film that not only recreates the incident through television footage but employs it as a springboard for a moving biography of the perpetrator and an insightful analysis of the socio-economic realities that shaped him. “Bus 174” is a compelling piece of non-fiction cinema.
The episode occurred on a Rio street in June of 2000, when a young man named Sandro, who’d lived briefly with an aunt after his mother’s murder and then hit the streets, tried to rob a busload of passengers and wound up holding them at gunpoint while the vehicle was surrounded by a SWAT team, innumerable journalists (including television crews) and scores of milling bystanders. “Bus 174” expertly links together broadcast material showing Sandro haranguing the police while threatening his hostages and interviews in which survivors, newsmen and officers offer blow-by-blow commentary on what the national audience was viewing on their TV screens. But the picture goes far beyond the particulars of the episode itself. It presents an affecting portrait of the street children of Rio among whom Sandro lived, including interviews with erstwhile homeless people, social workers who tried to help them and jailers who dealt with them, returning repeatedly to a notorious incident at Candelaria cathedral in which a group of the youngsters were attacked (and some of them killed) by police. It thereby also serves as a stinging indictment of Brazilian social policy and police training and procedure. And using interviews with relatives, acquaintances and government workers who knew him, as well as footage of the neighborhoods he frequented and the sites where he and his fellows lived, the film draws as detailed a portrait as one can about the background and experience of Sandro, whose motives remain enigmatic and whose ultimate fate is still the subject of political debate.
One can imagine a director pumping up this material for visceral impact, in the style of “Amores Perros” or “City of God,” but Padilha doesn’t do that. Though he demonstrates considerable skill in his intricate intercutting, he allows the argument to unfold at a natural, unhurried pace, avoiding the crude italicizing other filmmakers might have indulged in. As a result “Bus 174” has a sobriety that makes it all the more fascinating. The film is a cry of pain, but it’s even more effective for being a somewhat muted, well-modulated one, characterized by resigned grief rather than anger.