(Originally posted on 5 April 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
On June 12, 2000, an ex-convict named Sandro de Nascimento hijacked a bus in the middle-class Jardim Botânico neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. For the entire afternoon and into the evening, the hijacking spiraled into a hostage situation, with Sandro holding his fellow passengers at gunpoint while the police and SWAT team attempted to alleviate the situation. Finally, after dark, Sandro left the bus with a female hostage named Geísa. Shots rang out, and Sandro and the hostage were killed. This is the outline of perhaps the most highly-publicized crime in Brazilian history. In his film Bus 174, director Jose Padilha attempted to look beyond this outline to discover the truth about Sandro’s past and about what went wrong on that day in June.
As seen from the Atlantic Ocean, Rio de Janeiro is a bustling metropolis, with a beach teeming with resort hotels and luxurious homes. However, one discovers a different reality further inland. Bus 174 opens with a long helicopter shot of Rio, in which we see the slums, or favelas, that lie hidden in the hills just behind the rich neighborhoods. It is estimated that there are over one million boys living on the streets of Rio, and Sandro was one of them. After witnessing his mother’s brutal slaying at age six, Sandro took to the streets, falling into a life of drug abuse and crime. Throughout the course of the film, Padilha speaks with former street kids, but their cases are rare. More common are stories like the Candelaria massacre, in which seven street kids were killed by police while camping outside a church. A social worker states that of the 62 kids who survived the incident, 39 were later killed.
Eventually, Sandro’s lifestyle landed him in a Rio prison, a far cry from its regimented American counterparts. Prisons such as the ones where Sandro was jailed feel like something out of Dickens, had Dickens lived in the tropics — a dozen people to a cell, temperatures higher than 100 degrees, and all manner of disease make prison life in Rio one of almost unfathomable squalor. As Padilha takes his camera inside a similar prison (reversing the colors of the video, which creates an eerie effect), the prisoners say “I would rather have died than be in here… it’s worse than hell.”
Such was Sandro de Nascimento’s life before the Bus 174 incident. What happened after he hijacked the bus was another story unto itself. The police were called soon after the hijacking took place, but they were ill-trained and they failed to properly secure a perimeter. As a former cop explains, “in Rio, people who decide to become police officers are people who couldn’t get a regular job. A police officer has no idea what he’s getting trained for.” Once the SWAT team arrived on the scene, matters improved somewhat, but the crowds and especially the media were circling around, turning an already difficult crime scene into a zoo.
For his part, Sandro spent most of his time taunting the police and the cameras. Such was to be expected from a former child of the streets, according to one sociologist. “These boys are invisible,” he explains. “We are worth nothing if people don’t look at us.” If nothing else, Sandro was making sure people would take notice of him. He holds a gun to various hostages’ heads, loudly threatening to kill them unless the police meet his demands. Yet some of the hostages relate that they never really believed that he would kill them. One girl in particular says that she caught on to what Sandro was doing, and played along to help bring an end to the situation. As she tells us this, we see video footage of her at gunpoint, leaning into Sandro, clearly attempting to connect and empathize. Unfortunately, by that time it was too late.
But the scene that haunts me to this day is the culmination of the fateful day’s events. Padilha takes footage from a dozen different cameras on the scene and slows the action down to a crawl to show the moment that Sandro decided to leave the bus. Far from feeling like an affectation, the slow motion actually heightens the power of the sequence by simultaneously giving it an otherworldly effect and underlining the momentum of the events onscreen. As we hear the voices of various people involved recounting their perspective of what happened, the effect of the visuals are similar to the way that the survivors of a tragedy will replay the events in their minds. We as audience members become aware of every little detail — the way Sandro grabs Geísa, how he marches her in front of him, the movements of the other hostages, and how Sandro and Captain Batistia approach each other.
The first time I saw Bus 174, I actually caught myself not breathing during this sequence, so hypnotic was the filmmaking. But then the kicker comes — a lone SWAT team member, Marcelo, charges at Sandro, attempting to bring him down. When I first saw Marcelo drift into the shot, I remember gasping, not just from the shock of the image being suddenly altered, but also at the realization that everything was about to go very, very wrong. So it does, and Padilha shows us this image over and over again, from every angle he could find. Then we hear the gunshots, first two from Marcello, then a third from Sandro. Sandro falls to the ground, and then Geísa slumps down in front of him, presumably shot by a panicked Sandro. On the surface, this scene reminded me of the scene in Gimme Shelter in which the Rolling Stones watch the man being stabbed at the Altamont concert, but for my money Padilha’s version is even more resonant, in no small part because he was able to replay the moment again and again, from numerous angles.
But while this scene succeeds in recreating not just the events but also the emotional tone of this tragedy, no amount of video footage or filmmaking chops could ever explain how something like this could ever happen. Yes, Sandro de Nascimento was dangerous, and he deserved to be stopped, if not necessarily killed. But Marcelo erred as well, because his tunnel vision led to his charging into a situation that was already fraught with peril, unmindful of the life of the hostage. As one police officer relates, “the only one who paid attention to the hostage was Captain Batista.” Sadly, one man wasn’t enough to save her.
Yet what else could have happened? Sandro could have tried an escape, but he wouldn’t have gotten far, not with snipers hidden nearby and the crowd gathered around. “One should never let a static situation become mobile,” a SWAT team member says. Likewise, I’m not sure Sandro expected to survive the day either, once the police got involved. Had he survived, he would surely have been tossed back into the infernal prison, which he wouldn’t have wanted. “They know how it is,” says another officer, “and they don’t want to go back.” The real tragedy was that Geísa had to lose her life because of this. Discovering the reasons behind the hijacking, or the police’s questionable tactics, is cold comfort for her loved ones. The Bus 174 incident can never be undone, as this film’s climactic sequence makes unforgettably clear.