Which is what makes 2003's Bus 174 one of the more compelling documentaries in a year of compelling documentaries, as the recent Academy Award nominations proved. It's difficult to imagine how Bus 174 got squeezed out even in a year that featured such stunners as Capturing the Friedmans and The Weather Underground (and such critically acclaimed fare as The Fog of War). For in Bus 174 lies all the complexities of crime, class, law enforcement and general institutional failure.
Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, using the same kind of editing genius that made Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans so engrossing, examines the standoff that occurred in 2000 in Rio de Janeiro between police and bus hijacker Sandro do Nascimento. But Padilha, like Jarecki, does not rely on what for both filmmakers was the gift of archival film footage -- the entire, day-long standoff was captured on TV -- but uses an investigative journalist's sensibility and probes the man behind the crime.
In doing so, Padilha develops parallel narratives: the tragic life of the 19-year-old Nascimento, who became a street kid after witnessing the stabbing death of his mother when he was 6, and the tragedy that unfolds on the bus -- and how one made the other almost inevitable. What started out as an apparently botched robbery turned into chance for Nascimento to take out all of his rage against society in general but the police in particular, and Padilha deftly supports Nascimento's rantings with a scathing look at both Brazil's law enforcement and penal institutions.
Throughout the film, Padilha skips back and forth from Nascimento's past and present, with the future all but certain. After countless interviews with his aunt, his social worker, his friends, even his jailkeeper, Nascimento's fate appears sealed.
The result is chilling, for the viewer can be forgiven for crying for the plight of Nascimento while joining in with the hostages in screaming for a sniper to take a shot at the guy. But as is so often the case, be careful what you wish for.