On the surface, everything we need to know about "Bus 174" is in the film's preface. One June afternoon in 2000, a young man named Sandro do Nascimento boarded a public bus in an upscale area of Rio de Janeiro, pulled out a gun, and took the 11 passengers hostage. Cops and television crews came, huge crowds gathered. And all of Brazil was riveted. Eventually, the police shot Nascimento to death, and one woman passenger died.
Directed by Jose Padilha, this engrossing, smartly made documentary takes us through both the four-hour standoff and, somewhat more impressively, the circumstances that may have incited Nascimento to snap. "Bus 174" shapes a social essay out of TV footage of the hijacking, photographs, reams of police reports and psychiatric evaluations, and the filmmaker's interviews with the siege's hostage negotiator, reporters, cameramen, prison guards, academics, thugs, surviving hostages, Nascimento's social worker, his aunt, and his old friends. What we get is a dejected indictment of a society where an inclination to violence is what the powerless have in common with the empowered.
We learn that Nascimento was orphaned after his mother was stabbed to death, something he was unlucky enough to witness. Traumatized, he bounced around Rio as a delinquent and felon, turning to mugging to subsist and support the drug habit he developed. (In the film, more than one person suggests that he must have been high at the time of his hijacking.) By most accounts, Nascimento was a typical Brazilian street kid, of which there's a distressingly large number (several million in a country of 175 million), and the government's typical response to their plight was to lock them up or take their lives -- sometimes both.
The lack of juvenile detention centers meant young offenders did hard time in adult prisons, and Padilha's camera reveals conditions unfit for the city's rodent population, let alone its young men. Nascimento plotted escape and succeeded, yet like the millions of his peers, he was never home free. In 1993, some cops opened fire on a group of sleeping children in Rio's Candelaria Square. Nascimento knew a few of the eight dead and some of the wounded.
That massacre and the death of his mother were on his mind when he got on that bus. The film only flirts with using Nascimento's background as a scapegoat for his crime; it paints him as more of an angry emblem. And if Padilha's assessment is true -- that Nascimento's hard life broke him -- it's a miracle there isn't a hostage situation every day.
The movie oscillates between the interviews, such exploratory footage as those prison cells, and the actual event of the hijacking, which takes on a disturbing theatrical quality. Nascimento makes crude threats as he points his gun at a woman's head, insisting that this is not an action movie, despite all appearances to the contrary. Nascimento repeatedly pokes his head through a bus window, presenting police snipers with a clear opportunity to take him out. To the consternation of the people on the bus, the police -- apprehensive about such a graphic image flying all over the airwaves -- do not.
In being so thorough and rich in alternating perspectives, "Bus 174" courts redundancy. Also, the picture probably could have used fewer of those beautiful aerial shots of verdant, sunny Rio and a stronger sense of how the hostage crisis gripped the country. Still, this is patient filmmaking, trading sensationalism for the rewards of investigation.
"Bus 174" perceives this harrowing incident, and the supporting information that may have contributed to it, as a symptom of a country's peculiar societal illness. Almost cosmically, everything is out of whack and absolutely nobody seems to have any control.
("Bus 174": ***)
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.