Directed by José Padilha.
Coming just after 'Touching the Void' reinvigorated the stale talking-head documentary format, José Padilha's riveting 'Bus 174' further reminds audiences that simple techniques are sometimes the most effective means of telling a dramatic story. This is a film that will often be mentioned in the same breath as 'City of God', but, while the two share similar subject matter, the slickly-styled deprivation of the latter is in stark contrast to the quotidian tone and almost-plodding pace of the painstakingly researched documentary.
'Bus 174' captures the desperate last stand of Sandro do Nascimento, one of Rio de Janeiro's innumerable, and normally invisible, street kids. In a situation stemming from a bungled robbery attempt the hapless Sandro unintentionally winds up as Brazil's most high-profile hijacker ever, stopping Rio in its tracks on 12 June, 2000. The hostage crisis is exponentially greater than Sandro could ever have intended but, backed into a corner, he embraces his unsolicited role as the embodiment of Brazil's unseen underclass in what transpires as a most public and heart-wrenching cry for recognition.
Setting the scene with aerial pictures of Rio's stunning natural beauty, Padilha shows us that its affluence is pockmarked by large swathes of deprivation. In our aerial journey around Rio's coast, disembodied voices representing the disparate elements of Brazil's stratified society give their take on the tragedy that is about to unfold before our eyes. The footage finally homes in on the middle-class area around Jardim Botanico, where a parked bus is surrounded by phalanx of police vehicles and media vans.
On this bus, 21-year-old do Nascimento, apparently dangerously high on cocaine, is holding at least 10 people hostage and threatening to kill them. Chillingly, his demands are not clear, and he initially vacillates in a confused fashion before settling on more persistent (and highly impractical) requests for a rifle and hand grenade. Rio's ill-trained police have failed to cordon off the area - a crucial lapse, but ultimately one which makes possible this film. Brazil's media descend on the crime scene with unlimited access to the real-life drama taking place, and this sense of reality is punctuated by surreal sights such as a cyclist obliviously sailing by within feet of the gunman. The live pictures of the five-hour crisis become the country's most watched television spectacle ever.
Scene set, Padilha swiftly switches gear to intersperse the hijacking footage with a biography of the man who unwittingly unleashed the chaos. In this even-handed and minutely researched account we see Sandro take shape as a person, and a victim, in his own right. Having witnessed his pregnant mother being murdered as a child, he took to the streets where a life of petty thievery and glue sniffing awaited him. In and out of prison throughout his youth, and one of the survivors of the notorious Candelária street kids massacre (in which plain-clothes policemen murdered eight homeless children aged between 10 and 17), he never stood a chance. Intercut with interviews with the hostages, police and psychologists, as well as Sandro's relatives and friends, the dramatic hijacking footage is contextualised as its instigator is humanised. Tragic ending notwithstanding, Sandro is arguably attributed the least blame in a film which trains an unflinching spotlight on Brazilian society.
'Bus 174' is at once an indictment of the inept, corrupt police force, and the look-the-other-way attitude of ordinary Brazilians, many of whom quietly condone Candelária-style vigilantism as a method of 'cleaning up the streets'.