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September 27, 2004

Bus 174

Bus 174 (IMDB) is a powerful documentary which depicts a hostage crisis in Rio de Janeiro when 21-year old street person, Sandro do Nascimento, holds several bus passengers hostage for several hours after a botched robbery attempt. The underequipped and untrained police force were unable to secure the area around the bus, and the media quickly picked up the story, broadcasting the story live for several hours on Brazilian TV. Director José Padilha uses the raw footage of the event, creating a sense of liveness and intensity unparalleled in recent film.

Because he generally avoids using the media coverage itself, he avoids turning his documentary into yet another film about media spectacle, instead choosing to focus on the class and race antagonisms that played out during this frightening afternoon. Mixing raw footage with talking heads interviews with police officers, hostages, social workers, and sociologists, as well as Sandro's family and friends , Padilha produces a haunting account of life in Brazil for an "invisible" person like Sandro. Early in the film, we learn that Sandro watched as his mother, who ran a small business, was mugged and killed when he was six years old. Because he never knew his father, Sandro turns to the streets, living among the street gangs that roam the city, robbing people for food, clothes, and in Sandro's case, drugs.

We later learn that, as a teenager, Sandro survived a notorious police massacre of several street kids, and Sandro's case worker and his aunt explain that Sandro spent some time in prison for his crimes. Late in the film, the conditions in Brazil's prisons are brought vividly to life in a short sequence in which Padiho goes into a prison. People are stacked on top of each other in crowded cells, with forty people in a space meant for ten or so. The prisoners scream about abusive guards. Others tell us that their food is rotten, that they cannot get medical help, or that they cannot contact legal counsel. This entire sequence, filmed in the negative mode that switches black with white, making the jail seem utterly horrific. As Roger Ebert describes it:

nothing in the work of Bosch or the most abysmal horror films prepares us for these images.
The film builds to a bleak and horrifying conclusion, one that is clearly anticiapted by the interviews, but one that still left me feeling completely hollow. I don't think I've been this deeply unsettled by a film in a long time. Most reviewers have compared Bus 174 to City of God, but while City portrays a similar milieu, this documentary, with its raw footage, often unfolding in real time, had a far more powerful effect on me.

As J. Hoberman notes, Bus 174 does have an important subtext in Sandro's awareness of the emdia coverage. His constant insistence that what we're seeing is "not a movie," that it's not a Hollywood action film, seems crucial. Sandro seems aware of his media image, even to the point of asking his hostages to participate in the performance. I'm not quite sure yet how to reconcile Sandros' performance with the film's clear attempts to address Rio's problems with unemployment and poverty, but it's an important element of the film. Bus 174, with its troubling images of poverty and violence, is going to stick with me for a long time.

Posted by chuck at September 27, 2004 12:34 AM

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