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BUS 174 (2003) (not rated)


Official Site

Directors: José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda

Producers: José Padilha, Marcos Pardo


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 juvenile prisons.

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 year.

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.

—Edward Rholes


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