This review was originally published on March 11, 2012…
While I am open to most ideas for films, I have to admit that I was dubious about watching a film about the life of a school bus once it is retired from active service. To my great happiness, La Camioneta – The Journey of One American School Bus rises above its simplest synopsis and becomes a tale that is as much a statement about the persistence of life as it is about the evolution of a school bus.
The school bus in question, at the beginning of the film, is sold at auction to a man from Guatemala whose sole job is to come to America, bid and buy school buses, and then drive them back to Guatemala, where they are re-purposed by private buyers for public transportation. It’s a solitary, traveling life, and one that is not without its dangers. As the driver remarks, once you cross the border in Mexico, anything can happen.
Once the bus arrives in Guatemala, it begins its transformation as the old paint-job and designations must be changed and/or removed so that the bus can be used for public transportation. As the buyer of this particular bus puts it through its necessary changes, we learn about the day-to-day life for a public bus and bus driver in Guatemala, specifically that it is a dangerous job, especially if the drivers do not pay out money to the various gangs. Don’t pay the extortion, and your bus, and the patrons and driver on board, could become the victims of a bus bomb or other tragic event.
La Camioneta succeeds by telling the bus’s story while also expanding upon the different people who have now become a part of the bus’s orbit, such as its new owners, those in charge of painting it and even its new drivers. In that way, the bus becomes as much a proxy for the audience as character as anyone else could’ve been, and the journey of the bus becomes our journey.
Which is the point, in some ways, as the bus’s repeated rebirths with new looks or new services could easily been seen as a form of reincarnation, and the persistence of energy in life and in the universe just changing shape rather than disappearing forever. At the same time, we learn about life in Guatemala, and it is not always a cheerful portrait. One feels fear for those involved with this bus, and to some degree, fear for the bus itself.
My only criticism of the film revolves around the mid-section of the film, where the prepping of the bus seems to go on and on while we meet different people involved. While I understand the choice, it didn’t feel like we needed to spend that much time with the prep and painting of the bus. I’d prefer more about how the bus, and the owners, made out with it after it was released for service, which is shortchanged in comparison.