Bus 174 (Day 3)

Bus 174My Opinion: 7.0 || Excellent documentary about a bus hijacking and what it reveals about crime and poverty in Rio de Janeiro. The story of the hijacking is interesting in its own right, but what sets the movie apart is Padilha’s use of the hijacker’s story a window on the plight of street children and prisoners. It’s one of the more profound and thought-provoking films I’ve seen about crime and violence.

Title: Bus 174 (Ônibus 174)
Directors: José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda
Language: Portuguese | Country: Brazil
Year: 2002
Documentary, Crime | 150 minutes | IMDb (7.9)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): On June 12th, 2000, a bus full of passengers was kidnapped in Rio de Janeiro in broad daylight. The kidnapper, Sandro do Nascimento, terrorized his victims and when he finally agreed to surrender, the episode ended tragically. The whole ordeal was broadcast live, causing revolt among the population. The documentary is about the incident, with interviews, focusing on Sandro do Nascimento, his childhood, and how unavoidably he was doomed to become a bandit.

About The Storytelling: Padilha is very deft at doling out information about the hijacking. The film begins and (except for a brief postscript) ends with the hijacking itself, but we regularly leave the bus to piece together Sandho’s life story. One of Padilha’s many smart choices is to proceed non-chronologically through that life story; it allows him to save the most searing story for last and compels the viewer to work at making sense of Sandho.

About Narration: There isn’t any. This seems to have become the standard for high-end documentaries. (Brother’s Keeper was the first documentary I saw that did this, and it was a revelation.) It seems that documentary narration — at the film level; this is not a knock on “Frontline,” “American Experience,” etc. — now mostly belongs to polemicists and lunkheads. (Contrast the power of this film to the narcissistic showmanship that Michael Moore wants you to think is essential to social commentary.)

This Film Makes Me Want To . . . I now have a definite interest in seeing Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which is such a lousy, direct-to-video, starring-Chuck-Norris title that I’d ruled it out. It seems he’s also directing the remake of Robocop, so there’s hope that it won’t be awful.

This Film Also Makes Me Want To . . . Stay far away from the Rio de Janeiro police. Damn. If this were a fictional film, I’d criticize the plot for relying too much on police incompetence to keep the hijacking going. Craziness. How everyone wasn’t fired, I can’t imagine.

Another This Film Makes Me Want to Do . . . is give a shout out to two other very good Brazilian documentaries, Senna and Manda Bala. I liked the former and really liked the latter, which would make a great (if depressing) double-feature with Bus 174. It has a broader scope and focuses on a different city (Sao Palo) and is probably less artful, but it’s a strong film.

Bus 174

Best Scene: At a crucial moment of violence, Padilha withholds crucial information about what was going on inside the bus, so that we see things from the observer’s perspective. It’s a good insight into the difference between conveying information and telling a story. If the priority were on information, he would have been expected to tell us what was happening between Sandho and the captives. But with the priority (rightly) on storytelling, he holds back and prioritizes experience over information.

Connections: Fascinating to watch this right after Bicycle Thieves. Notwithstanding the very big differences in format and subject matter, there’s thematic consistence across the two movies. In both cases, we have the inability of social institutions and the state to provide a safety net and security. Time and again, the protagonists (using the term loosely with Bus 174) are failed and both are transformed, in their desperation, from victims into victimizers.

File Under: documentary, social critique, violence, crime, cities, poverty, despair