Subsequent to this film, Padilha moved into drama, making the slightly bombastic Elite Squad. Elite Squad was a success on many levels, and bombast and cinema make for comfortable commercial bedfellows. Nevertheless, Bus 174, a documentary, displays a rather more surgical directorial sensibility, one which skewers some of the more grotesque aspects of Brazilian (and specifically Rio) society with unyielding intent.
The film opens with a panoramic helicopter shot, homing in on the primeval beauty of Rio as it seems to erupt out of the Atlantic ocean, the city named for the month it's river was discovered, a city which more than most succeeds in maintaining an affinity with the land it's made from. Jungle lurks at the city's edges and hides away on hilltops within its boundaries. Almost as though declaring that this is a city which contains environments which cannot be known, forever at odds with the urban ideal of transparency or accessibility. The directorial counterpoint to the gleaming opening shot are the scenes filmed in a prison, which are given the heading - any prison in Rio. This, even more than the favelas, is the manifestation of jungle, contained within the city, a place where men live crammed together, without room to lie down, or suspended above each other in hammocks, with shared possessions hung from ropes. The camera captures faces in negative making them appear dehumanised, vague, their pleas for attention or justice or decency coming through as sound recordings from the underworld. It's a mesmerising passage of footage which brings home the film's contention that there are parts of Brazilian society that suffer from extreme neglect and de-humanisation. When these elements appear within society, it should come as no surprise that conflict comes with them, something Sandro's story eloquently conveys.
These directorial touches help to ensure that Bus 174 pushes the boundaries of the documentary format. As well as the talking heads of those involved in the Bus siege, the directors make the most of what is a documentary goldmine, the hours of TV tape which traced the abortive bus hijacking by Sandro do Nascimento, a renegade figure whose agenda, the film gradually reveals, was more complex than anyone could imagine. Tracing Sandro's journey in conjunction with the progress of the siege itself, the film assembles a portrait of a complex, abused figure, who created his own meta-drama in order to finally, it is suggested, make himself visible within a society that does not want to know about people like him. (As such the film's resonance reaches far beyond Brazil).
Bus 174 is a taut, masterly piece of documentary making. In contrast with Elite Squad, it benefits from having a clear focus on one dramatic situation, which is played out to its tragic, farcical conclusion. It's high-octane fiim-making, which shakes up a format which so often manages to reduce the dramatic into something staid.