Dir: Jose Padilha. Brazil. 2002. 150mins.

Jose Padillha's excellent documentary about a gunman holding up a bus in Rio de Janeiro boasts extraordinary footage and tells a remarkable story. While it covers some of the same ground as Fernado Mereilles much acclaimed slum drama City Of God, it also stands on its own merits as a grizzly picture of Brazilian urban life. Both films portray the cycle of violence that has come to typify contemporary urban Brazil, but whereas City Of God is stylised and sexy, Bus 174 is the raw material. In hostage-taker Sandro do Nascimento, Padilha has found a perfect narrative that synthesises all of Latin America's major social problems: violent crime, corrupt police officers, drug trafficking, inhumane prisons and street children. The film, may, at two-and-a-half hours, be overlong for audiences outside Brazil, and could possibly be trimmed for overseas exposure. However, astute distributors should be able to market it as a companion piece to City Of God. Bus 174 won the FIPRESCI award for best Brazilian film at the recent Rio film festival.

On June 12 2000, Sandro do Nascimento held up a public bus in a middle-class residential area of Rio De Janeiro and took the passengers hostage. TV cameras reached the scene almost as fast as the police and for the following four hours the hold-up was broadcast live across the country, watched by a TV audience of about 35m. The film starts at the beginning of the siege and ends with its horrific conclusion. The footage of the hold-up is interspersed with interviews and an investigation into Sandro's life.

Bus 174's key selling point is that there has probably never been a hostage situation that has been so comprehensively caught on TV: the film is as much about the about the role of media as the crime itself. At one point Sandro shouts to the cameras: "This isn't a film! This is real life!" and the irony is unsettling.

The primary material is harrowing: cameras capture everything going on inside the bus, including the police negotiation with Sandro - the sound is good enough to hear their conversations - and the finale in which a "crack" police marksman fires at Sandro at point-blank rage (he misses and Sandro reacts by killing a female hostage before himself being lynched on camera).

However, the power of the film is not just in the tension of the siege as it edges towards disaster, but in the untwining of Sandro's background. Far from being an anonymous gunman, Sandro is a survivor of the infamous Candelaria massacre of 1993, in which eight street children were gunned down by police as they slept by a church. This means that there is a lot of strong material - including footage - from Sandro's past. In simply filmed interviews with relatives and social workers, the audience learn how murder has been part of Sandro's life since he was a child: he saw his mother stabbed to death in front of him, aged nine, which drove him on to the streets.

The more the audience learn about Sandro, the more sympathetic towards him they become. The villains are the authorities, such as the police, who are poorly trained, lacking in resources and incompetent. Towards the end the, the film takes a campaigning twist, with shocking images of overcrowded prison cells, shot in negative to avoid identifying faces.

Prod co: Zazen Producoes
Brazil dist:
Int'l sales:
Zazen Producoes
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