Starring: Sandro do Nascimento
Director: José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda
Running Time: 122 mins
Bus 174 (Ônibus 174) is a Brazilian documentary about the events of a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro that were captured and broadcast on live television, and the history of how a young man from a poor background came to take a bus full of innocent people hostage for four hours.
Combining a thrilling and equally terrifying flashpoint with an immense wealth of exploration into one of Brazil’s most pervasive social problems, Bus 174 is simply one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, with such stunning dramatic power and devastating social realities that it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen even for a moment.
First things first, if you’re not from Brazil, you likely won’t have heard of the Bus 174 incident – I hadn’t before going into this film. Simply put, it was a hostage crisis where a man walked onto a bus and held the passengers to gunpoint for four hours. On the face of things, that sounds like a hugely exciting focus for a film, but perhaps little more than a simple thriller-esque story.
The reality, however, is far, far deeper and darker, and while Bus 174 brilliantly details the way that the hostage crisis unfolded on that fateful day, making for non-stop, nail-biting viewing, it’s the background to the incident and how it all ties in with such a widespread and hard-hitting contemporary social crisis that makes this film really hit home.
The documentary weaves its way between the events of the hostage crisis and the story of the man who committed the crime, from his upbringing in a poor background to a devastating turn in his life that left him fending for himself on the streets. From there, the film is able to engross you deeply in the story of Sandro do Nascimento’s life up to the day of the incident, and how the path that he took to taking that step onto the bus is so indelibly linked to the issues surrounding poverty and street children in Brazil’s cities.
Of course, from a foreign perspective, this film is immediately reminiscent of the astonishing City Of God, but the difference between the two is that while City Of God looks at the lives of children who are dragged into a criminal underworld, Bus 174 instead looks at how that narrative is perceived by wider society, and what role the community has in creating a culture where such a phenomenon is so devastatingly common.
In that, there is so, so much content and insight into the problems facing Brazil in this regard, ranging from the struggles of the children themselves to the culpability of authorities whose actions only breed more violence and more poverty, all brought to life in fascinating detail that comes from a riveting step-by-step journey through Sandro’s life, as well as interviews from people in all walks of society.
But beyond just learning about the devastating realities of this crisis, what really sets Bus 174 as a documentary apart from the rest is just how thought-provoking it is in changing your perceptions of the situation. At first, you’re presented with the beginning of the hostage crisis, in which you see Sandro as a dangerous, loose criminal, but as the film goes on and you learn more about his life as well as the life of those around him, you begin to understand and sympathise with him to such an extent that it completely changes your view of him and the hostage crisis each time the film returns to it.
Of course, the movie recognises the horror of the violence committed on the day, as well as the immense distress caused to the hostages – brought to life by interviews with a number of the hostages themselves – but it’s the way that it contextualises the incident in comparison to the media frenzy that it was widely viewed as at the time, and changes your perception from the easy stereotype to understanding a whole lot more about why such an event could ever happen.
Therefore, watching the incident unfold isn’t just an exciting, nail-biting affair, but actually an example of the effects of a broken part of society that really makes you think, and come the end, I was overcome with a sense of sadness and genuine devastation for the way that things panned out in the end.
Overall, then, there is barely a bad word to say about Bus 174. An astonishingly powerful documentary that combines nail-biting thrills with pensive, thought-provoking social insight, proving incredibly effective in changing your perceptions while still teaching you so much about a devastating reality of the modern world, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.9.