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.
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.
But Padilha does much more than just present a hostage situation. He hunts down people who knew Nascimento and reconstructs his tortured life. As a boy, he witnessed his pregnant mother being stabbed to death. With no father, he took to the streets and a life of petty crime. His young life was touched by violence again when he survived a massacre of other street children.
The remaining hostages also were interviewed, and Padilha intercuts their emotional comments with the continuing hostage drama. In effect, we hear from them exactly what they were feeling during the moments we have just witnessed.
The hijacker himself seems aware of the disconnect between reality and fiction. Holding a gun to a hostage, he yells out a window of the bus, "This ain't no action movie thing. This is serious shit."
"Bus 174" attempts to make Nascimento's actions understandable. His friends speculate that he was motivated by a fear of being put in Brazil's medieval prisons.
The film takes us behind bars to hear horror stories from prisoners. They're illuminated by a black light to hide their identity. The effect is like looking at an X-ray. Moments like this attest to Padilha's artistry as a filmmaker.