For those of you who loved City Of God, more uplifting
cinema from Brazil. Actually this sobering documentary can
serve as both companion piece and antidote to the stylish
pulp of City Of God. It concerns the hijacking of a
city bus in Rio de Janeiro, and the subsequent standoff that
became a macabre spectacle, as an entire nation watched a
deranged man threaten passengers on the bus and curse the
nation that blighted him.
The filmmakers Lacerda and Padilha have put
together a sweeping documentary that focuses on the hijacker,
placing him within a wider social context, by interweaving
interviews with the drama on the bus. His name was Sandro,
and he was a petty thief and a drug addict. He grew up on
the streets of Rio after witnessing his mother’s murder
at age six. We hear from other street kids and acquaintances
about the kind of day-to-day struggles Sandro faced. Remarkably,
we learn he was part of another infamous incident, the Candelaria
massacre, where cops murdered a group of Sandro’s friends
in front of church. After that he would be picked up on mugging
charges and do time in one of Rio de Janeiro’s notorious
The drama on the bus is both riveting voyeurism and grotesque
theater. Cameramen and cops surround the bus as Sandro makes
one of his captives write messages on the glass in lipstick
detailing how he plans to murder her at six. He routinely
pops his head out to shout insults at the cops who stand back
idly. The Rio de Janeiro police just watch, even though the
bus’s large plate glass windows would seem to afford
a marksman several opportunities to end the standoff. They’re
under orders not to shoot Sandro while the cameras are on,
ironic because Rio’s poorly equipped and poorly trained
police are notoriously trigger-happy, killing hundreds every
Sandro seems to revel in his moment in the spotlight, but
as day drags into night he seems to become more unhinged.
He demands a rifle and when it doesn’t come he appears
to shoot one of the hostages, to the horror of all watching.
Actually this is part of an act; Sandro and the hostages seem
to have come to a kind of understanding, as he pumps them
to convince the crowd he’s really serious.
Of course all of this has to come to an end, and needless
to say it’s a tragic one. I won’t go into the
details, but from everything we’ve learned we realize
that Sandro never really had a chance. His short, painful
life was leading up to some kind of tragedy; it’s just
an odd bit of fate that we all happen to see its sad culmination.
Bus 174 is a remarkable documentary, substantive and
dramatically rich. Perhaps the filmmakers overreach at times
in their attempt to posit Sandro as emblematic of a national
crisis, but the movie an impressive feat nonetheless.