Bus 174

October, 2003, Documentary

Directed by:José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda

Starring:Sandro do Nascimento

This rather bloated Brazilian documentary relegates Kill Bill to the bush leagues; the violence deployed in that film was patently phony-here it's agonizingly real, but exploited all the same by filmmaker Jose Padilha with every bit of the calculated attention to its voyeuristic possibilities that Tarantino used in his more widely exhibited work.

Three years ago, a Rio de Janeiro bus was ineptly hijacked by a petty criminal nicknamed Sandro, who wanted to rob the passengers and make his escape. By chance, the police trapped him inside the vehicle, triggering an inadvertent hostage situation which dragged on for over 5 hours before its violent and completely avoidable conclusion. That the police handled the standoff badly is an understatement--but Padilha uses videotapes of the live television coverage as a launching point for an exercise in social criticism so lacking in balance that his polemics sag into left-wing propaganda.

Interspersing post-incident interviews with raw newsreel footage, the director provides his interpretation of the forces that drove Sandro to bring a loaded pistol aboard the bus and attempt a stick-up even his criminal friends later described as particularly stupid. Sandro was one of Brazil's "street kids", those homeless, glue-sniffing youngsters living on the streets who survive by relying on prostitution, robbery and the occasional outreach programs of non-profit organizations that speak for these kids in protesting the often brutal treatment meted out to them by the police. Witness to his mother's murder at an early age, bounced from home to home thereafter and imprisoned on a number of occasions, Sandro emerges as a socially manufactured time bomb primed for the right explosive moment. When confronted by the badly confused and poorly coordinated police, Sandro goes into meltdown, with predictably bloody results. 

  In attempting to use this incident as an indictment of the social ills present in Brazilian society, the director asks his audience to feel sympathy for Sandro at the expense of his hostages--and it just won't wash. Academics are interviewed about the "invisibility" of street kids and the inhuman conditions under which they're frequently forced to live by a government that seeks to suppress rather than assist them. Sandro's aunt, foster mother and street companions are sympathetically shown mourning the life that might have been. Perfectly okay, if the portrait isn't too one sided; but where is the attempt here to balance the factors in Sandro's background with those of the captives whose lives he repeatedly threatened over five agonizing hours? These victims were young students and domestic workers of modest means, struggling with the challenges in their lives just as Sandro was; yet their unjustified suffering at Sandro’s hands simply provides the filmmaker with sensational background for the his repetitive coverage of the fatal denouement. This excessive focus on the futility of the criminal's life rather than the anguish he visited upon his victims ultimately turns this attempted criticism of a repressive government into a one-sided diatribe, ignoring the worth of those who suffered as a result of Sandro's violence while straining to give his life a larger meaning.

 The verdict?  Good intentions run amok.    

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