Think about all the awful things you see, hear, or read about in the news every day. Now consider that for every multiple homicide case, domestic violence incident, or rape in the news, there’s a separate, equally compelling, yet usually barely reported story concerning the perpetrator of the crime in question. It’s this phenomenon, the story itself and the parallel events in the participants’ lives that led to that story that director Jose Padilha explores in his grimly compelling documentary “Bus 174.”
The film’s focal point is a June 2000 bus hijacking in a relatively well to do area of Rio de Janeiro. Sandro do Nascimento, a former Brazilian street kid turned repeat offender in his adult life, was fleeing from a bank robbery gone awry, eventually hijacking and holing up inside a passenger bus with its terrified passengers. Circled by a phalanx of cops, SWAT members, photo and news journalists, and curious onlookers, Sandro kept his fellow Brazilians riveted to the unfolding drama for nearly four hours on live television.
Yet “Bus 174” does far more than just provide a blow-by-blow breakdown of the lethal drama, (although it does this quite adequately as well.) Instead, this massively complex documentary uses the standoff as an excuse to explore an entire panoply of Brazil’s sociological ills. Rampant poverty, urban blight, the ever-present street kids, all these characteristics of Brazilian big city life that blend together in the sort of unpleasant urban cocktail which virtually guarantees the country’s chronic and disproportionate violence.
By trying to explore all of these issues — each of which qualifies for a documentary in its own right — while simultaneously analyzing the hijacking itself, “Bus 174” is at times a little too much of a good thing. Moving seemingly at random between extensive and chilling television footage of the actual hijacking, its detailed and comprehensive investigation of the crime, and an examination of the horrific and brutal conditions inside Brazilian prisons, PLUS interviews with the hijack survivors, several of the law enforcement officers involved, social workers, members of Sandro’s family and fellow former street kids, and much, much more, the film threatens to overwhelm its viewers with an information overload.
Even so, “Bus 174” is still an amazingly powerful piece of cinema. Actually, it’s more an amazingly powerful piece of news journalism; the kind of in-depth stories told in all their complexity that such fluff American network “news” magazines as “Dateline” could only dream about telling. After all, most viewers can handle such complexity if given the chance (and those who can’t had better learn to if society is going to get anywhere). It’s here, by its steadfast refusal to simplify this one amongst hundreds of horrific tragedies in the news every day and gloss over its root causes that the gripping and harrowing “Bus 174” ultimately succeeds.