You may recall the minor flap that a 2002 episode of “The Simpsons” caused when it depicted the family visiting Brazil, taking the opportunity to make all manner of jokes at Brazil’s expense. Officials from that country were angry and demanded an apology from the Fox network, but if they’re that worried about an American cartoon while ignoring the scathing indictments delivered by powerful films like “City of God” and “Bus 174,” then maybe things in Brazil really are as screwed-up as “The Simpsons” jokingly suggested they were.
“City of God” was a fictionalized version of several true stories that depicted the slums outside Rio de Janeiro as a whirling nightmare of gangs and drug dealers, Brazil’s “lost boys.” “Bus 174” is a documentary about the actions of one of those lost boys, one Sandro do Nascimento, who on June 12, 2000, engaged police in a day-long standoff after he took a bus hostage.
The incident itself — caught on tape by dozens of news crews, giving the documentarians plenty of actual footage to work with — is compelling on its own, full of the kind of surprises, twists and cruel irony that have fueled many a Hollywood thriller. Director Jose Padilha also includes new interviews with witnesses and survivors to flesh out the story.
But he goes further than just the hostage crisis. “Bus 174” is about the chaotic, helter-skelter Brazilian society that produces (and subsequently ignores) boys like Sandro do Nascimento. It in no way rationalizes his actions on the bus, but it goes a long way toward explaining what led to it (something the Hollywood thrillers almost always fail at).
We are told the story of the Candelaria street kids, all orphans, runaways or simply forgotten, seven of whom were killed by police, utterly unprovoked, in the wee morning hours in 1993. Many of Rio’s populace felt the police were doing their duty in “cleaning up the city.” Others, like Sandro — a Candelaria kid who survived the attack — saw it as further evidence that their community had not forgotten them at all, but in fact actively despised them. Sandro and his fellow lost boys were without hope.
The bus scenario is fraught with drama and scandal, only a few details of which I will hint at here, as I think you will find it more scintillating to let the movie reveal them to you in its own way. Rio police, it turns out, tend to be men who were previously unemployed, lacking in both marketable skills and self-esteem — only a step away from becoming lost boys themselves, it sounds like. They are also poorly trained in the police academies.
All of this was brought to bear in the way the hostage crisis was handled. Snipers had numerous opportunities to take Sandro down, but were ordered by the chief of police not to do so because the event was being televised and he didn’t want a man being killed on live TV, not even a street-rat terrorist like Sandro. And in the standoff’s gripping finale — retold expertly by Padilha, narrated by those involved — we see tragic confusion, inaccuracy and outright incompetence.
Padilha makes a few missteps in his production, generally in allowing the story to ramble more than it needs to and feel slightly overlong. Including interviews with a pompous sociologist wringing his hands over the tragedy of it all is redundant, too, as the circumstances speak for themselves and do not need further illumination, and especially not from someone who has probably never even traveled in Rio’s rougher neighborhoods, let alone encountered any of Sandro’s contemporaries.
I’m haunted by the film’s description of Brazil’s jails as wretched, overcrowded, inhumane dungeons. How does that relate to the tale of bus 174? We’re told by an observer: “Dead or in custody, Sandro was going to be worse off.” How can it possibly end well?
B+ (1 hr., 57 min.; Portuguese with subtitles; )