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'Bus 174' is a true-story thriller deeply rooted in Rio's problems

October 24, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

On June 12, 2000, the botched robbery of a passenger bus in Rio de Janeiro by a drugged-out, armed youngster turned into a four-hour standoff broadcast live on TV.

The events of that unforgettable day, as well as their horrifying conclusion, are vividly re-created by 32-year-old Brazilian documentary filmmaker Jose Padilha in "Bus 174," which opens today in Los Angeles.

"Everyone knew about this story in Brazil," he says.

"When I was editing the film for the U.S., I realized that the new version had the potential of playing like a thriller. So I deliberately took away any hints within the film that might reveal the ending."

Indeed, the documentary ends up being a more suspenseful work than most thrillers served up by Hollywood. But Padilha has much more on his mind than merely building up the tension. In opening aerial shots, the director shows us middle-class pockets co-existing with the city's inescapable favelas, the shantytowns that give birth to desperate criminals such as the hijacker, Sandro do Nascimento.

"The film is basically about the amazing life of this hijacker," Padilha says. "But it is also about the street kids and about violence in Rio as a whole. As the movie progresses, we get to experience the dirt under the fingernails of the city."

The dirt, in this case, becomes visible as soon as we are made aware of the hijacker's past. Padilha intercuts television footage of the standoff (he gained access to 24 hours of material) with interviews tracing the hijacker's life. Through the testimony of former friends, social workers, drug dealers and the hostages themselves, a complex picture emerges of a man who is as much a victim as he is a victimizer. A visit to some of Rio's jails -- as accurate a depiction of hell on Earth as we are likely to see -- is also included as part of the documentary.

"Bus 174" premiered at last year's Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, where it became a favorite with critics and audiences. It was then released theatrically in Brazil, where it was a commercial hit.

The most shocking piece of information about Sandro is revealed early on. A former street kid who witnessed his mother's being butchered when he was 6, Sandro was also a survivor of the infamous Candelaria massacre. In 1993, plainclothes Rio police officers shot several homeless children as part of a "cleanup operation" that took place at night. Eight kids died and several others were wounded.

Candelaria stands as one of the most shameful events in the history of modern Brazil, a crime that Sandro refers to constantly. "It is amazing to consider that Sandro was a survivor of that massacre," says Padilha. "How could the government not take care of the kids that were at Candelaria? That is simply unacceptable. If you mistreat someone and then pretend that he is not there, that person will manage to get his message across through violence."

Padilha's editing emphasizes the inherent irony of the situation. In the beginning, Sandro makes clumsy attempts at preventing the TV cameras from capturing his face. Eventually, he changes his mind and begins performing for them and the world outside. For the first time in his life, he has a chance to be heard. "This is not an action movie," he yells repeatedly.

The tragicomic potential of the story is also revealed whenever Padilha exposes the incompetence of the Rio police and a SWAT team.

"The ineptitude of the police is there for anyone to see in the stock footage culled from the TV stations," the director says. "When I realized that, I made a conscious decision not to hide that fact, either out of fear of the police or for any other reason."

As the movie progresses, the viewer's perception of Sandro and his actions changes dramatically. Padilha toys with our preconceptions, suggesting a "Rashomon"-like reality, in which the more you know about a person and his past wounds, the more difficult it becomes to condemn his actions.

"I tried to avoid falling into any kind of moral judgment," the director says. "My aim was simply to offer an explanation. Sandro's life story tells us that the Brazilian state is actively generating violence by the way it mishandles the street kids and juvenile delinquents."

Much as Padilha has labored to maintain a dispassionate view of his subject matter, he cannot keep the real, heinous villain of this narrative from emerging: a society that allows human beings to grow up exposed to the kind of suffering that Sandro experienced in his life.

"I see this story as a Greek tragedy," the director says. "When Sandro was inside that bus, the whole of Brazilian society was in there with him."

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