- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

“Dog Day Afternoon” demonstrated how effectively an urban hostage crisis could be dramatized. The Brazilian import “Bus 174,” exclusively at Visions Cinema, shows that a documentary reconstruction of a similar situation may exhaust as much human interest as it arouses.

“Bus” tells the story of a prolonged standoff during one afternoon and evening in June 2000, when an apparently stoned hijacker in his early 20s, Sandro, held several passengers captive on a commuter bus near a botanical park in Rio de Janeiro. While surrounded by press and onlookers and importuned to be reasonable by a police negotiator, Sandro sustained the spectacle of bullying several women passengers at gunpoint and ranting redundantly.

His demands — for a driver, a rifle, a hand grenade — were never met. Sandro also stuck his head outside the windows of the bus on numerous occasions to deliver the rants, so it remains a mystery to the law enforcement types interviewed by filmmakers Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda that no one authorized any of the sharpshooters on hand to pull a trigger. The consensus is that authorities preferred to temporize indefinitely rather than risk the shock of a grandstanding felon being shot on live television.

In the wake of an undeniably bizarre denouement, a case could be made for failing to trust the general level of marksmanship. Sandro was apprehended soon after he walked off the bus, still holding a hostage at gunpoint. A police officer within point-blank range missed the perp with two consecutive shots. The police hustled him away from a surging and vindictive crowd; Sandro died of suffocation by the time they reached the station. Evidently, several officers were restraining him throughout the fatal ride. A postscript notes that a trial cleared them of criminal charges.

Sandro’s folly also ended up costing the life of one hostage. During the siege, he fired off rounds inside the bus and encouraged hostages to pretend he was leaving casualties on the premises long before the death toll commenced. Several passengers contribute their postmortems of the incident, savored in such a way that you begin to suspect the filmmakers intend to milk the case history as long as Sandro milked the siege.

“Bus 174” leaves you uncertain of what the filmmakers’ agenda or basic sympathies might be. Maybe they’re just insatiable listeners. A couple of witnesses appear masked, one a reputed commando and one a reputed drug dealer who revels in criminal anecdotes. There’s a booby-prize sociologist who celebrates Sandro as a forgotten street waif who achieved “visibility” at a somewhat high cost. “Society wants all the Sandros to vanish,” he pontificates, “because it cannot bear reality. He redefined the social narrative.”

Sandro no doubt evoked bleeding-heart solicitude as well as law-and-order contempt, but for all its backward glancing and recycling of on-the-spot coverage, “Bus 174” fails to make a compelling argument for Sandro as a charismatic delinquent or a doomed touchstone to remember.

*1/2

TITLE: “Bus 174”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter and treatment, occasional profanity, extensive use of TV news footage in which hostages are threatened, episodes about juvenile delinquency and jail conditions in Rio de Janeiro)

CREDITS: Directed by Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerdo. In Portuguese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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