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Bus 174 depicts a nation held hostage

On June 12, 2000, Sandro do Nascimento was no longer invisible.

One of Rio de Janeiro's thousands of homeless drug addicts and petty thieves, Sandro became, for a few hours, the most famous man in Brazil after attempting to rob the passengers on a bus. When the holdup went awry, he held 11 people hostage for four-and-a-half hours. Broadcast on live television, it became a media event on the scale of O.J. Simpson in his white Ford Bronco.

In his documentary Bus 174, Jose Padilha doesn't simply repeat the harrowing images of the standoff. The director demands to know who Sandro really was, what drove him to such desperation and where the police response went wrong. From the driver's seat, Sandro repeatedly raves at the law enforcement officers, "This is no action movie!" but Bus 174 generates nearly unbearable suspense while condemning an entire nation's social policies.

Early on, a bespectacled SWAT team officer becomes a sympathetic figure in a film with no heroes, but the police repeatedly make disastrous decisions. Officers fail to clear the area, so at times, cameramen approach within an arm's length of Sandro. With the country watching the events unfold on TV, the police chiefs insist the officers take Sandro alive, despite the danger to the passengers and the ease with which snipers could stop him.

The camera's perspective fosters both distance and intimacy. When Sandro seems on the verge of shooting a hostage, the obscured view through the bus windows increases our nervousness. In the film's most chilling moment, a hostage uses lipstick to write on the windshield, "HE IS GOING TO KILL US ALL AT 6 O'CLOCK." Other times, Sandro sticks his head out a window to rant at the police, and in close-up, the crazed gunman looks like a law-and-order conservative's worst nightmare.

Padilha refuses to take either the media's images or the police accounts at face value. Bus 174 repeatedly cuts away from the crime scene's unfolding drama to reconstruct Sandro's life. Blood and neglect mark the young man, who never knew his father and saw his mother fatally stabbed when he was a child.

He joined Rio's legions of homeless runaway children, who frequently spent nights outside Candelaria Church until 1993, when assailants attacked and killed seven young people one night. Sandro survived the notorious massacre, placing him at the scene of the nation's two most scandalous bouts of modern urban violence.

Padilha blames the police for the killings, although he fails to back up that claim with specifics. While Bus 174 justifiably criticizes the state of Brazil's law enforcement, the film skimps on details about police culture and corruption in favor of depicting the plight of the homeless. Two interviewees conceal their faces -- a ski-masked policeman and a stockinged drug dealer -- in a visual motif that implies the professions occupy opposite sides of same shadowy coin.

The film also talks to the hostages themselves, including one who suffered a stroke during the crisis and is left mute. The innocents describe calm connections between them and Sandro that the news cameras never caught. And at times, Bus 174 switches to panoramic aerial shots of Rio's slum-clustered hills, encouraging the viewer to step back and consider the bigger forces at work.

Bus 174 is sometimes too sympathetic for Sandro as a representative of Brazil's homeless, downtrodden, "invisible" class. Padilha reserves his anger for the police, who turn the crisis into a tragedy, and Brazilian society itself, which allows impoverished young people so few options. As thrilling as Speed yet as impassioned as the best muckraking journalism, Bus 174 joins other nonfiction films such as Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans to reinforce the idea that documentaries have become the rich and provocative social novels of our time.

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