The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is brilliant filmmaking—literally. A prizewinner at virtually every competitive festival where it’s been shown, José Padilha’s feature uses a reality-TV analogue to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to illuminate an entire social order—and, in a way, the revenge fantasies that underlie a movie like Kill Bill.
One June afternoon in 2000, a 21-year-old homeless, illiterate, glue-sniffing mugger named Sandro do Nascimento hijacked a Rio de Janeiro bus in a botched robbery attempt and, for over four hours, held its passengers hostage. The standoff was a spectacle from the first. Delayed in establishing a perimeter, the Rio police initially (and even ultimately) were unable to prevent the media from surrounding the bus. The raw footage that Padilha uses was taken nearly in everybody’s face. Shouting and waving his .38, clutching terrified hostages and dictating messages for them to scrawl with lipstick on the windshield, Sandro is seen and heard throughout. When he sticks his head out the bus window, it’s as though he’s broken the proscenium.
How much reality is too much? Prominent in Sandro’s rant is the assertion that what is happening is “not a movie.” (The continual references to Hollywood are telling—as are the suggestions that, confident in his media image, Sandro was putting on an act.) Bus 174 shows little that hasn’t already been dramatized in recent Brazilian cinema. People actually die before our eyes, yet the movie never has the exploitation feel of an overwrought, amoral carnage-fest like City of God. Tense, engrossing, and superbly structured, Bus 174 is not just unforgettable drama but a skillfully developed argument.
Sandro’s fearsome show is annotated by hostages and cops, sociologists and social workers, as well as his friends and relatives. We learn that when he was a child, his mother was stabbed to death before his eyes in a robbery, and that as a teenager he survived a notorious police massacre of sleeping street kids. These interviews prompt digressions on the lives of such kids, on local prison conditions, and the nature of police procedures. (Even the SWAT team operated without radio communication.) Just as the hijacking reaches its climax, Padilha dives once more back into Sandro’s childhood, resurfacing for the heart-stopping conclusion.
The entire botched operation—a small disaster inside a larger, ongoing disaster—was watched in real time as it unfolded by an audience of millions. For whatever reasons, Padilha has clearly made a decision not to show the coverage as it was filtered through broadcast TV. Perhaps this global-village fascination is implicit. In any case, it’s not necessary.
“Streets of Fire: In Bus 174, José Padilha Pieces Together a Hijacker’s Hell” by Laura Sinagra