Young Sandro, it turns out, was probably blasted to the eyeballs on glue, or cocaine, or both, but that didn't necessarily explain his behavior. And neither the TV reporters raking him with their videocams, nor the bewildered legions of police who were trying, impotently, to defuse the hostage crisis, managed to decipher his motives or his state of mind. Their lapses give Padilha's exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) cinematic investigation of the case far greater value and deeper meaning than if someone, anyone, on the scene that day had a clue. What emerges here is not just a glimpse of a disturbed street kid trapped in a moment of madness but, for better or worse, the larger, even scarier picture of a society coming apart at the seams, a festering chaos of which this lone hijacker was just one small expression.
Padilha's deconstruction is really a cry of the heart in support of the forgotten, disenfranchised, invisible young people of a great city. In Sandro, we meet a fatherless child who, at the age of 6, saw his mother murdered before his eyes, was cut adrift, joined a street gang and wound up doing stints in Rio's hellish youth homes and jails. Those horrors are compounded by the testimony of a dozen other street kids -- there are tens of thousands of them in Rio -- living without hope in cardboard boxes in Copacabana, their rage simmering as they smoke pot, sniff glue, steal and hustle. Compared with the nihilist killers we met in the violent Brazilian melodrama City of God, these real-life characters have more heart, if not more hope. When one of them tells us, speaking flatly, "it's a cold floor, and when we wake up there's no food," we are as struck by his matter-of-factness as by the creeping vision of a community mired in poverty and malaise forevermore.
Meanwhile, the city's public administration is seen as hamstrung or uncaring, and its police force emerges as poorly armed and poorly trained, damned by low self-esteem and lousy pay. One SWAT cop, forbidden by his superiors to talk with the filmmakers, does it with his face obscured by a ski mask. The cops' most notorious moment? Their 1992 massacre of seven children sleeping outside a church in Rio's Candelaria District. Sandro was there, too, and what of him survived, beyond his fury, is hard to determine.
Padilha's assorted social scientists, reporters and public officials give greater substance to his portrait of vast social neglect, awakening us in new ways. "This ain't no fuckin' movie," Sandro shouts (in Portuguese) as he threatens to shoot a hostage at six o'clock. Later, a psychiatrist broadens the picture: "Society treats these kids not as human beings, but as garbage." Says one of Sandro's friends, shrugging: "One day you win, the next, you lose."
After spending more than two hours, on and off, with a 21-year-old we could, in slightly different circumstances, consider a terrorist, we may not find ourselves completely sympathetic to his rage. But thanks to Padilha's vivid combination of TV images, with their brutal immediacy, and his careful hindsight, steeped in analysis, we come to see the quandary of Rio's orphans of the night. As for Sandro do Nascimento himself, we see who he was, where he came from, how he lived and how he tried, in one fateful moment, to define himself. Whatever your political stripe happens to be, or your views on the responsibilities of government, this is provocative stuff -- and not just for its searing indictment of Brazilian society. It doesn't take much imagination to envision Bus 174 adrift in the streets of, say, San Francisco, Phoenix or Denver, soon to be overtaken by another gun-toting stranger in desperate search of himself.