Directed by José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda. (2002, R, 122 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 6, 2004
"This ain’t no action movie. This is serious shit, bro." Truer words were never spoken, and coming as they do from a cocaine-fueled bus hijacker in Rio de Janeiro, you can bet disaster won’t be far off. This remarkable documentary by Padilha is the second film in as many months to capture the intersection of South American political terror and the media’s reaction to it (the other film is Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), and is, if anything, even more excruciating to watch. Part of this is due to the enormous television coverage the hijacking and hostage crisis garnered when it occurred on June 12, 2000. Within minutes, virtually every journalist from Rio was on the scene with cameras and booms jostling for position. As the police and SWAT teams jockeyed for kill-shot positions, they also failed to cordon off the crime scene, where a ranting homeless man – Sandro Rosa do Nascimento – held his pistol on a busload of terrified hostages. That miscalculation on the police’s part may have been outlandishly unprofessional, but it also directly allowed this shocking documentary to occur, since the complete standoff from beginning to end was taped by the myriad media outlets on scene. Padilha, however, recognized immediately that there’s more to the story than one lone gunman, and Bus 174 is at its most powerful when the filmmaker later takes his cameras to the slums and speaks to the homeless men and women who knew Sandro. As interviews with sociologists, journalists, and street kids are intercut with footage of June 12, the hijacker’s motivation becomes clear: He’s publicizing, in his own terrible way, the plight of the homeless in Rio. Regularly beaten by the police and treated as nonpersons by everyone else (especially by Rio’s lifeblood, the tourism industry), Sandro and the millions of others like him have been forced to eke out livelihoods via begging and crime. In the wake of a well-publicized massacre at the Candelária Church in downtown Rio, during which dozens of homeless kids were shot and killed by an out-of-control police force sent to roust them as they slept, the surviving Sandro has gone over the edge and taken matters into his own bloody hands. A drug addict who saw his mother murdered in front of him at age 16, he’s remembered fondly by his equally disenfranchised friends, who recall him sharing ice cream dinners on the street and sniffing glue in the dank Rio alleys. Even the media representatives whom Padilha interviews seem inclined to cut this human debris a break as they recount the Rio police force’s botched handling of the hijacking. Far from being atypical, the events of June 12 and the litany of tiny nightmares that led up to that day are brutally obvious. In a city that continually hides its social problems among the shadows, it’s inevitable that the surest light to reveal them would come from a muzzle flash.