Something that I've always found fascinating about the documentary Gimme Shelter is the way it seems -
whether true or not - to define a very real moment in history, when the innocence of one era died and
gave way to the darkness of the next. Of course, history isn't ever that neat but there appears to be
dividing line in the very real violence that Gimme Shelter's cameras capture and replay
endlessly. Filmmakers Felipe Lacerda and José Padilha undoubtedly were influenced by the almost
fetishistic way that Gimme Shelter dissects the moment of death, but at the same time their
film is much larger in scope. That's because the culture of violence and oppression in Rio de Janeiro
did not begin on June 12th, 2000, when the events their film depicts took place. And they didn't end
Bus 174 is an extremely well-constructed look at the desperation and despair of one of the
world's greatest contradictions: An enormous city of millions that's home both to tremendous wealth
and metropolitan culture as well as truly crushing poverty. The violence and street culture of the
2002 film City of God is proved absolutely, viscerally real in Bus 174. But the
documentary doesn't present this world through some preachy propaganda piece or exotic travelogue.
Instead it focuses on one event that took place over the span of a few hours, that just provided so
many of the culture's conflicts a public forum for their inevitable bloodletting.
Kidnappings and robberies are apparently commonplace among Rio's stressed out population, which
includes a very visible underground of lost boys who, homeless from childhood, grow up on the streets
hustling for everything from food to glue for sniffing. On June 12th, 2000, one grown product of this
underground named Sandro attempted a broad-daylight robbery of a city bus full of passengers. When
things didn't go as planned he took the bus hostage and, in front of a growing throng of gawkers and
media hounds, spurred on one of the least productive negotiation sessions imaginable. What's really
incredible is the variety of camera sources available to the filmmakers. Brazilian news stations
shot the bus and the police and SWAT actions from every conceivable angle, providing the filmmakers
with an eerily cinematic set of editing options.
In addition, the film includes interviews with
many of the hostages, witnesses and security personnel as well as some of Sandro's fellow hustlers.
With all these points of view on board, Bus 174 presents an amazingly complete view of the
events and the social climate that led up to it: At key moments during the standoff the film flashes
back to broader social history or to Sandro's tragic past. Voices from his childhood fill in the
details (mother brutally murdered before his eyes, homeless at six years old, institutionalized and
abused...) Thrown into this stylistic mix is a series of tremendously powerful bird's-eye shots of
Rio, really emphasizing the insane sprawl of a city built into such lush nature. The camera soars
over a green mountain to reveal numbingly dense ghettos bordering luxurious estates and country
The film also traces much of the seemingly obscure rhetoric he spouts from the bus
windows. Sandro yells about the killing of his friends, something that the audience won't understand
until the film flashes back to the notorious 1993 Candelária mass killing of many of Sandro's fellow
street kids. The film, again seeming omnipresent, offers footage of the kids from the night before,
including a young Sandro. Like everything in Bus 174, the event becomes painfully real through
the treatment of the filmmakers and their expert editing and interviews.
The entire film builds to the conflict of the hostage situation and this is where the Gimme
Shelter comparison comes in. While the film does try to understand the events that helped lead
Sandro to taking innocent civilians hostage, it doesn't completely let him off without any criticism.
Still, there is a definite sense that the underfunded, undertrained police force and the scrutiny of
media cameras (that were broadcasting the events live on Brazilian TV, causing the police to form
their responses around how they would look to the public) helped cause the escalation. Audiences may
be expecting an out-and-out bloodbath and, while that doesn't happen, what finally takes place is so
useless and so wasteful that you can't help but feel hollowed-out. A routine hostage situation that
was allowed to drag out for far too long finally ends in a poorly planned out, completely disastrous
police maneuver. The filmmakers take the various shots of the final moments and slow them down, play
them and replay them until they become almost hypnotic. It's hard to watch but the impact is
tremendous. It's hard to know exactly how to react to what happens but you just know it's so wrong.
There's no beginning and no middle and, despite the finality of the showdown, there is no end for a
society with problems so insurmountable that few even seem to care. All that's missing is Mick
Jagger's ineffectual and resigned Gimme Shelter epitaph: "Well, that's it, isn't it?"
The widescreen anamorphic video obviously comes from a variety of sources but mostly looks quite
good. Any footage shot by the filmmakers is colorful and vibrant. And the news footage all has a real
immediacy that adds to the impact of the film.
The film is entirely in Portuguese and permanent yellow English subtitles appear throughout. The
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is clear and the score is simple and effective. This is not reference audio
but it helps build mood and contributes to the film.
The main extra is a "making of" segment that helps underline the unique process of making the film
out of so much news footage. It runs about half an hour and is a nice addition. It helps the viewer
understand a little better how the events played out and how the filmmakers used what happened to
shape their story. There are also 40 additional minutes of interviews with the subjects of the film.
This is a good thing to have but it's a lot to wade through. The film does such an outstanding job of
focusing on the emotional and social issues that such a large cache of additional material is almost
distracting. But it's good to have.
Bus 174 peels back the sunny face of one of the world's premier tourist destinations and finds
an aching, suffering heart underneath. By focusing on such a specific event the filmmakers have
offered up a statement about all other similarly desperate people who were not immortalized on videotape. It's a situation
so dense and complex that no two-hour film can pretend to truly explore it all. But by keeping their
film moving and exploring but still stopping time when necessary, Lacerda and Padihla have crafted a
powerful and dark journey that should give audiences something to think about.