The stark Brazilian documentary Bus 174 takes two solid hours to do what a television newsmagazine generally can accomplish in an hour with commercials, or what Errol Morris does in 90 minutes or so with more imagination.
Through interviews with police, hostages, street people, family members and concerned citizens, José Padilha's film chronicles the four-hour siege of a bus in Rio de Janeiro by Sandro do Nascimento, a 24-year-old former convict who witnessed his mother's murder at the age of 5 and lived on the streets ever since. On July 12, 2000, Sandro tried to rob the passengers on a neighborhood bus. But the police arrived before he could flee, thus beginning an armed standoff that endangered the hostages on the bus along with scores of onlookers, some of them undauntedly watching from within Sandro's firing range.
The untrained and somewhat brutal Rio police force, we're told, consists largely of unemployed people who couldn't get jobs elsewhere. But SWAT officers are very well trained. Why, then, didn't a marksman just take out Sandro? Apparently some higher-up idiot commander ordered them to negotiate a solution and take Sandro alive, an order that resulted in a farcical portrait of administrative spinelessness and incompetence.
For as much time as Padilha spends on the hostage crisis -- which is somewhat dull until it reaches its intense climax -- he spends a fair amount of time parsing Brazil's social problems, which include a veritable other country of desperate, destitute homeless kids who, in the film's quite true central thesis, necessarily grow up to become people like Sandro.
They come from abusive, poverty-stricken homes, and a well-meaning sociologist theorizes that these kids "battle against invisibility." He repeats this metaphor over and over, until you want to remind him that they probably battle against hunger even more. Sandro, the sociologist says, gains power from the TV coverage of his siege. Cut to an image of broadcast towers atop a symbolic mountain, and later to Sandro telling us, "This ain't no action movie." Suddenly, with all of Brazil watching on live TV, he's no longer "invisible."
Except, of course, that Sandro just wanted to take the money and run. Padilha's journalism in Bus 174 is often impressive: His camera sojourns to the sidewalks and underpasses where street kids live and die, and he digs up footage of Sandro from an infamous 1993 "massacre" that left seven kids dead. Occasionally Padilha even trips over some irony (the kids beg for money from the city's rich tourists). But mostly, his long, slow, redundant film focuses too often on the hostage crisis, and so it doesn't move us to care any more than we already do or should about these Brazilian kids -- or about the Pittsburgh adults who will live this winter on Downtown streets, perhaps covered by a blanket of the newspaper that you're reading right now in your own snug home. In Portuguese, with subtitles.