Thanks to the shockingly perceptive Oscar nominations given to City of God, the plight of Brazilian street kids is getting an unprecedented amount of international attention. Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant little film is a barely fictionalized story of the poverty and violence that are a part of growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and enough people apparently saw it to earn him a Best Director nomination.
Bus 174 could be seen as something of a companion piece to City of God, and it’s difficult to remember the last time a drama and a documentary on the same general non-American subject came to American audiences’ attention at the same time—never mind the fact that they’re both outstanding movies. Besides, director Jose Padilha’s story is real: It’s a deconstruction of a four-hour hostage standoff aboard a bus in an affluent area of Rio in June 2000. With extensive footage from the television cameras that surrounded the scene, the action is gruesome and fascinating. It just might be the best episode of Cops ever made.
That’s the easy part. Padilha also delves into the roots of the crime, uncovering a complicated web of poverty and desperation in the background of the 21-year-old man who took the bus that day. With a cool confidence reminiscent of Errol Morris (The Fog of War), he paints a vivid picture of the squalor and horror that might lead to such an incident. He interviews everybody: prison guards, cameramen, the hostage negotiator, survivors, other street kids, social workers, even the remaining family of the hijacker. After you hear the story of Sandro de Nascimento, you wish every sad high-school kid in America could get this perspective and realize just how good they’ve got it.
Nascimento’s story is almost as distressing as his crime. He watched his mother get stabbed to death. He was orphaned and homeless, wandering through Rio as a drifter and a mugger supporting a drug habit. He eventually ended up in a prison that makes Mexican jail look like spring break. He escaped, kept up his wandering ways—and he eventually hijacked a bus.
Bus 174 moves fluidly from the footage of the hijacking, to interviews with all the principals to exploratory footage of Nascimento’s previous life, visiting his prison and neighborhood. The footage, it must be repeated, is fantastic voyeur stuff; the cameras went right up to the bus, where Nascimento was shouting threats and poking his head out the window. Police didn’t shoot him only because they didn’t want it all over international TV.
Padilha has a keen sense of the dramatic, but he’s also remarkably subtle in advancing his own ideas on the roots of Nascimento’s decision. Like a good negotiator, he allows us to reach the conclusions he’s subtly pushing us toward. Yet he also resists the temptation to explain away Nascimento’s crimes with his upbringing, as the filmmakers did in Charlize Theron’s Monster. The hostage situation is described as more of an overall inevitability. Padilha doesn’t condone it, but he illuminates its roots in a country flailing against widespread poverty. While acknowledging that there are bigger issues, Padilha keeps his lens focused on this one incident, confident in its ability to tip us to the fact that such a crisis could happen anywhere people feel desperate and hopeless.
In the age of American navel-gazing over the tragedy at Columbine and the like, Bus 174 is another document of the horrors possible when our culture of hyperbolic entertainment violence is paired with the hopelessness that’s always been part of impoverished life. Padilha is well aware of the social implications, but he’s focused on the story. Everything else is simply revealed in the telling.
BUS 174, ***.5, Documentary Directed by Jose Padilha, Not Rated