Bus 174
"starring" Sandro do Nascimento
4 1/2 stars

review by Stephen Notley

Meet Sandro. He's a lanky, tall black kid, 19 though he looks older, and up until a few minutes ago he's been living on the street. Now he's got a gun and he's taken a bus filled with passengers captive, and when he looks out the window he sees cameras and SWAT team members everywhere.

This is Rio de Janeiro in 2000, what later became known as the "Bus 174" incident. Moments after the hostage-taking began the scene was crawling with Rio TV cameras, so the whole hours-long situation was recorded back-to-front from a million perspectives, beamed out to the whole city as it was unfolding.

And the picture on the screen is convincing. Sandro's a doped-up lunatic, a street-kid turned animal. He plays it up for the cameras, forcing the captives to write "He's going to kill us all" on the windows with lipstick, yelling "I'm going to blow her head off at 6 o'clock" out the window to the cops. 

And always that big heavy gun held loosely in his hand, always on the job. Sandro knows how to hold someone at gunpoint; the barrel is always pressing against a neck or some ribs, under a chin, dipping into a mouth. Even when he's groping around with one hand, clumsily trying to wrap a cloth around his face, the gun stays on message, sticks to that ear. You watch, sniping with your mind, waiting to take your  shot, but Sandro doesn't give many opportunities. 

You wouldn't think you could build a lot of sympathy for Sandro. You'd be wrong. Bus 174 works through the footage of the standoff, cutting away to interviews to provide context. Turns out there's a lot.

Sandro was a Rio street kid. His mom was murdered in front of him when he was six, and he hit the street soon after that, hooking up with the other street kids, getting into pot and sniffing glue, begging for change, moving up to petty larceny and the occasional carjacking. We see an interview with one charming fellow with pantyhose over his head bragging about how he used to know Sandro, proudly detailing his own cool career of dousing people with gasoline and setting them on fire.

We watch footage of the standoff, narrated by SWAT team members and snipers, faces covered since they've been forbidden to discuss the incident. They're crying out to take the shot and you can't blame them. You want them to take the shot. Sorry, Sandro, I know it's been tough for you, but these guys need to blow you away before you kill somebody.

And then we hear about the Candelaria massacre, where a few enterprising off-duty Rio cops swung by the Candelaria church one evening and fired into a crowd of street kids, killing seven. A social worker mentions how, on the talk shows the next day, a lot of callers seemed to think that was a pretty good idea. Why not clean the streets of a few more of these carjacking thugs?

And we see the Rio prisons, some of the worst in the world, supersqualid holes, routine beatings. The prisons are a big part of a street kid's life. The cops haul you in, beat the shit out of you, and eventually you escape. And then you get dragged back in again. It's a real cycle of hope for these kids.

Then interviews with his adopted mother discussing the weeks before the incident, she describing his wide-eyed amazement that he could have a whole room to himself, that he could have a stove to cook potatoes on, him telling her, "I have to be an artist. I have to do something with my life."

And then, back to the bus, the grueling moment-by-moment video. Sandro takes a girl, drapes a cloth over her, marches her to the front of the bus. Yells out the window "This is no fuckin' action movie!" You watch and spend long minutes thinking about what it would be like to have someone hold a gun to your head. "You're controlled by someone willing to kill you, and he has nothing to lose." Do it, you urge the snipers.

But then we hear the hostages tell of a double dialogue, words spoken to the cops and cameras while a different message goes to the people in the bus. "I'm not going to shoot you, I'm going to shoot next to you. Play along." And we hear some of what the people there said to him in those final few minutes.

Then he makes the decision to leave the bus, and a "chaotic moment" occurs, multiply recorded but still deeply mysterious, and the rest of it plays out not happily. "The police deal with problems society doesn't want to deal with," and they're not gentle.

It's no fun time, it's hard and scary, but you should get to know Sandro. Haunting, horrifying, passionate; Bus 174 should be seen.