There is so much that is striking, and devastating, about José Padilha’s documentary Bus 174 it’s hard to know where to begin. Constructed from television news clips (many of which consisted of images taken from traffic cameras), as well as from original footage shot on DV and 16mm, the film is a painstakingly detailed unpeeling of one of the most famous crime scenes in Brazilian history. On July 12, 2000, an armed young man commandeered a Rio de Janeiro public-transit bus, intending to hold up the driver and a handful of passengers, then make a quick getaway. Instead, a four-hour-long standoff took place between him and law-enforcement personnel broadcast live over the airways.

Early on, a SWAT-team negotiator nicknamed the gunman “Sergio.” His real name, it turned out, was Sandro do Nascimento, he was 21 years old, and his real-life tale was a staggering gnarl of social ills and their exponential repercussions. His mother was knifed to death in front of him when he was 6, and he soon became one of the country’s countless glue-sniffing street kids, stealing, begging and hustling to survive. Do Nascimento was also among the survivors of the infamous 1993 Candelaria massacre, in which a huge gathering of sleeping street kids were slaughtered by an impromptu police death squad.

It’s not freshness of information or revelation, or even the horror of certain events, that makes Bus 174 so powerful a sociopolitical essay, riveting without ever becoming sentimental. Rather, it’s the way Padilha pivots so gracefully across time and perspectives, between crackling news footage and smartly edited talking-head interviews with social workers, street kids, police, Do Nascimento’s far-flung family members, the surviving hostages from the bus hijacking — creating a taut protest film from the raw material of media sensationalism. Indeed, one of the film’s most poignant and suggestive elements is Sandro’s own media savvy, his playing to the camera, to the preconceived notions of who he is — he is so very ready for his close-up — even as he keeps exclaiming that what’s unfolding is real life, and not a movie. There’s a certain buzz that comes from watching Padilha jack the resources of Big Brother — traffic-camera footage, caffeinated news coverage meant to titillate and frighten, not educate or contextualize — and fashion them into an incisive critique of police brutality, governmental policies that are indifferent to (or actually brutalize) the poor, and a prison system so cruel in its treatment of inmates that it all but guarantees that anyone who survives it will come out more angry and dangerous than when they went in. Moreover, as Bus 174 cuts back and forth from the nerve-racking, real-time unspooling of the hostage drama, to slow pans down nighttime streets teeming with homeless kids, to interviews that sketch Sandro’s brief and tragic life, Padilha achieves his goal of humanizing the boy who wields the gun.

His actual subject, however, is larger. It’s unfashionable nowadays to speak of society’s “victims” — that’s knee-jerk P.C. liberalism, after all. But Padilha artfully articulates the human cost of indifference and the countless manifestations of sanctioned cruelty. Whether it’s poorly trained cops who take the gig because there are no other career options (“They think their job is to kill criminals,” says one observer), or the young castoffs left to fend for themselves (and whose ill treatment at the hands of the law is given tacit approval by a society that just wants them out of sight, one way or another), the sobering reality — as the director makes clear — is that all these elements eventually converge. When they do, they give the true measure of a culture’s moral and spiritual standing. Bus 174 is tough and relentless, dazzlingly researched and crafted. At its core is compassion for those who are angry, violent and uneducated. Padilha’s thesis is simple: These are not monsters, and they were not born this way. They were sculpted by the world we live in.

BUS 174 | Directed by JOSÉ PADILHA | Produced by PADILHA and MARCOS PRADO Released by THINKFilm Inc. | At the Nuart

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