2002, Movies

Ônibus 174 (2002, José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda)

Bus 174 is a low-budget, overlong documentary about a bizarre hostage-taking incident in Brazil that was watched by the country on the news. The story itself is compelling in many ways but the actual film about the incident is kind of a mess. We might call it “completist” as it’s a 2.5 hour movie about a 4 hour hostage-taking. If a documentary  can have spoilers, I guess this review contains them.

This is a well-meaning film that tries to do too much. The film includes tons of footage of the hostage-taking and interviews with the surviving hostages, people who knew the hostage-taker and the police. But there are also interviews with random street kids and convicts and a drug dealer. I don’t know how many people appear in this film as talking heads or men-on-the-street but it’s a lot. Like a ton. As in, too many.

The film gives us a portrait of the hostage-takers life, one that the people watching him on TV didn’t know and one that I suspect those watching the mainstream Brazilian news channels didn’t get either. The hostage-taker had a horrible life. But we get this relatively early on. And attempts to expand this view don’t add enough to the story to justify the length of the film. (The pacing is not great.)

Then there’s the story of the police utterly botching the situation in two ways:

  • accidentally shooting a hostage victim and then allowing her to be shot repeatedly
  • murdering the hostage-taker (after preventing the crowd from doing so).

This story gets a fair amount of time as well, though not as much as the hostage-taker’s life story. It’s evident that political interference impacted the performance of the police on the scene but it’s also pretty evident that the supposedly well trained “SWAT” units (who disparage the regular police in interviews) were not good at handling this situation.

I think the filmmakers should have chosen to make a movie about one of the above stories, as balancing them doesn’t work.

But the most annoying aspect of the entire film is the prisoner interviews, which don’t add much to the film. (Basically, they are trying to tell us that Brazil’s prisons are awful. But they’ve already told us this in an earlier scene with a jailer’s guided tour of another prison. Yes, that’s also in this movie.) This scene is shot with one of those effects that changes the way everyone looks, as if you’re watching a scrambled TV channel. (Remember those?) Presumably they did this as an easy way to hid everyone’s identities but it’s inexcusable (to me) to include a scene as long as it is that looks as horrible as it does, to provide yet another “Brazil’s prisons are awful” point in a film that already has enough content. It’s awful to look at and it adds nothing to the film.

I could go on with the nit-picks. But instead I should just say: this incident could have made an excellent documentary. But, despite the rave reviews this movie got, this is not that movie. It’s too long, it’s paced poorly, there’s too much content (and too much stock footage!) and the emotional impact the film wants to have at the end is muted by the clumsy structure and editing.


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