You can't take your eyes off the stunning Brazilian documentary "Bus 174" about how social forces, a robbery gone wrong and police mishandling led to tragedy and scandal in Rio de Janeiro.
By JOSHUA TANZER
(Originally reviewed at the New Directors New Films festival in April 2003.)
If the "Bus 174" hostage standoff had taken place in America, it would have been shown live via news chopper on nationwide television for a day and then replaced by some other televised catastrophe, forgotten except for its occasional rebroadcast as a ninety-second curiosity on shows with titles like "World's Scariest Hostage Crises." We would have learned nothing.
Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilho didn't want that to happen in his country, so he made a documentary that looks deeply into this one incident and all its antecedents in the culture of Rio de Janeiro. It may momentarily indulge our fascination with watching "reality" unfold onscreen, but at the end of two hours we've gotten more than just a little daily diversion we've seen exactly how the culture of street kids, prison, rich and poor, and official bumbling collided to produce more than just the random tragedy of the day.
|Full title: ´nibus 174.|
Directed by: Jose Padilha, Felipe Lacerda.
Written by: Jose Padilha.
Featuring: Sandro do Nascimento, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, Rodrigo Pimentel, Luiz Eduardo Soares.
Cinematography: Marcelo "Guru" Duarte, Cezar Moraes.
In Portuguese with English subtitles.
209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.)
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Sandro Rosa do Nascimento apparently meant to quickly rob the passengers on Bus 174, hop off and buy drugs, a common occurrence on the streets of Rio but one that happened to go wrong in almost every way on June 12, 2000. Trapped on the bus, Sandro followed his instincts instincts that were almost always wrong and held a pistol on half a dozen hostages in an all-day battle of nerves from which SWAT cops say he had no chance of emerging alive.
The case set off a furor in Brazil, partly because of its tragic outcome, partly because of police mishandling, and partly because Sandro's background raised issues about crime, poverty and the burgeoning population of street children.|
Sandro joined the cycle of crime as a young boy after he watched three thugs stab his pregnant mother to death. A well-meaning aunt tried to care for him, but the morose youngster left for the streets, petty crime, drugs and jail.
As cops and experts discuss the June 12 events, it's clear that Sandro's first thought was to get away from the robbery quickly, undoubtedly to get high. He hadn't planned to seize hostages and he clearly isn't good at it. (SWAT team members point out a dozen times when they could have taken a clear shot at him if they hadn't been ordered not to.) But he quickly grows into his role, puffing himself up as a tough guy and swaggering for the cameras. It's his moment of stardom.
"I'm going to toss her out the window like in the movie last night!" he screams, with his gun to the head of a female hostage. "This is some serious shit!"
He instructs one of the hostages to use her lipstick to write on the bus's windshield: "He is going to kill us all." Up to now, this is just an increasingly tense situation where a guy has gone crazy with a gun. Then, amid his stream of bravado, Sandro says something anomalous whose meaning is puzzling to Americans but it would have rung a bell with those listening at the time:
"You bet, it's a serious crime! The whole country can watch me! Hear what I'm saying, pigs? Hear me? You killed my friends at Candelaria. I know I was there."
Hey, wait a minute Candelaria? Where did that come from? Well, this is the kind of a movie where when a detail doesn't fit, we go find out why. The steps of Candelaria Church were the scene of a police massacre in which seven street kids were killed. (A sociologist researching the street community notes that, out of 69 kids in the group, 37 more were dead by the time she was interviewed.) Suddenly Sandro has figured out what he's doing this for given the spotlight, he wants to make a political statement, not just be a nut with a gun. As the sociologist notes, for this brief media moment, he has "recovered his visibility."
As the film looks deeper into his background, we see what happens to kids like Sandro. "When they first hit the street," says a veteran hustler who knew him when he first arrived, "they don't know how to steal. They don't smoke pot or sniff glue." But Sandro learned. And he inevitably landed behind bars more than once.|
Some of the most stunning parts of this documentary are the visits to prisons where he was held. A former jail guard leads the documentary crew through what can only be called a dungeon, where kids were once packed 40 to a tiny, lightless, rust-encrusted iron cell. Later, we're taken through a prison that's still crammed full of kids. To obscure the youths' faces through the bars, the filmmakers present these interviews as a negative image, but this trick doesn't just protect their identities it turns the jail tour into a disturbing, searing visual experience. The inmates tell of constant abuse at the hands of the guards. "We'll probably be tortured after you leave," one says with little trace of emotion.
It's unfashionable in the U.S. to look for social causes of crime, for fear it will seem to excuse the criminal, and indeed Sandro deserves no sympathy for bringing a loaded gun onto a bus and pointing it at the heads of innocent bus passengers. But who could watch his mother die in the street, rot in these prisons, and not come out depraved? How did the political system make this bad situation worse? There is a lot to understand about how the Bus 174 tragedy came to pass, and this film is a masterful look behind the TV image, rooting out the social phenomena and personal trajectories that erupted on this particular day.
Think of "Bus 174" as the best episode of "Cops" ever made. You can't take your eyes off this movie, and you'll leave with a very heavy heart when it's over.
|MARCH 28, 2003|
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