Bus 174 and City of God


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My second of three essays on Latin American Cinema. I analyze the films Bus 174 and City of God.

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, a young man in his twenties, holds a hostage in his arms with a gun at her head inside Bus 174 of Jardim Botanico, Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil. The man yells at the camera, “This is not an action movie, this is a serious matter!”. One without a hint or clue of this scene description might possibly convey it as well-written dialogue in a self-reflexive fiction, meaning, “consciousness turning back on itself” or films which call attention to themselves as cinematic constructs (Siska, 285). Unfortunately this is not the case. Albeit its self-reflexivity, the 2002 film Bus 174 directed by Jose Padilha documents the event of young protagonist Sandro who holds a bus hostage for four hours. The camera he addresses is part of a flock of cameras covering the event live for television and there is no one to yell cut to his actions. The event and consequences are real, which overall depicts the violence of Brazil’s society.

The year 2002 was a witness to another great Brazilian film City of God directed by Fernando Meireilles, a film about the growth of a crime gang in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Now why would the fiction film City of God be mentioned in the same breathe as the documentary film Bus 174? Ask the critiques of Bus 174. To select a few, Jamie Russel of BBC states, “A stunning indictment of Brazil’s social meltdown, this startling documentary plays like City Of God – except this time the bullets are real” and Empire summarizes that, “If City Of God cracked the skin, Bus 174 digs deep into the wound”. These are brief comments about the films similarities but they are accepted in a movie review. As Timothy Corrigan explains, movie reviews are an introduction of the film to the general public, but he also explains the critical essay, a deeper evaluation that focuses on the film’s themes and any other filmic observations (Corrigan, 7-10). That is my job here. Collecting opinions of theoretical author’s and my own, I will analyze what makes City of God similar to Bus 174. In terms of form, while one is a documentary and another a fiction, they each contain a small but significant element of their opposite form to blur the lines of documentary and fiction. Thematically, both films depict the aspect of violence in Brazil’s society. Combining form and theme, Bus 174 and City of God realistically portrays the social issues in Brazil that ultimately categorizes both films under the Cinema Novo movement of Latin America, a movement that captured the underdevelopment of Latin America.

Else R. P. Vieira, Professor of Latin American Studies, states that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language (Vieira, 51). The open sequence of the fiction film is a representation of this. It begins with fast-paced, extreme close-ups of knives, the celebratory Brazilian community killing chickens followed with another stylized sequence of a chase with guns for a fleeing chicken. The sequence ends with our hero, Rocket, a young man with a camera, who stands close to the chicken while confronted by a gang on one end and the police on the other. While contemplating whether he should take a picture of the event, he narrates, “A picture could change my life, in the City of God, if you run away, they get you and if you stay, they get you too. It’s been that way ever since I was a kid”.

Comprising mostly of fictional elements, there is still subtle documentary traits that incorporates filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch’s ethnofiction genre, a subgenre of docufiction that means, “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background” (Ross, 1) by using actors and scripts. The film utilizes the docufiction technique by using real people from the favela as actors. Expanding on this, Vieira explains that two hundred children and adolescents were trained during preproduction allowed great spontaneity in the film, which would need a handheld camera to capture it. Real people and handheld cameras are usual motifs to the documentary genre to capture the truth and reality of a given topic or event – this being violence in Brazil that was also depicted in Bus 174. 

Author Gloria Galino categorizes Bus 174 under post-modern documentary because it borrows features from fiction film. This is evident in the opening frames of the film as it begins with a near four-minute long shot of Jardim Botanico as it gets close to the scene of Sandro’s crime accompanied with a string-orchestrated soundtrack. Gloria Galino is inspired with theorist Linda Williams’ who states, “post-modern documentaries take part in a new hunger for reality on the part of the audience apparently saturated with Hollywood fiction, but with a sense that truth is subject of manipulation and construction by docu-auteurs who, whether on camera or behind it, are forcefully calling the shots” (Galino 83). Director Jose Padilha has power to make the film how he wishes which develops into a documentary that displays the intensity of a fiction. This also relates to self-reflexivity, which as mentioned previously, addresses the construction of a film where the voice of the director is evident.

In my opinion, the most effective choice made by the director was to break time and space by juxtaposing footage of the live event with parts of the film that reflect on Sandro’s traumatic past of his mother being murdered by interviewing people who know him. Linda Williams calls this aspect of the film, “mirror with memory” (Galino, 84). Since they are exploring the past, this cannot be captured, therefore it needs to be constructed through memory and as French philosopher Jacques Ranciere defines it, memory is a “work of fiction”. It is subjectively constructed from an individual while viewing objective accounts (Ranciere, 158). Theorist Belinda Smaill expands on the director’s decision to not organize the film to offer a single, one-sided reading which makes the documentary provoke drama and suspense because of the analysis of the protagonist’s psyche (Smaill, 185). I mentioned Else R. P. Vieira’s statement earlier that City of God utilizes hegemonic models and mainstream film language. Bus 174 follows that statement and she continues that both qualities are necessary to achieve success internationally. Bus 174 is the first Latin American documentary that was show in cinemas and film festivals around the world. Along with City of God, it was an international success.

To synthesize both films as a part of Latin American Cinema, City of God and Bus 174 represent Cinema Novo, a movement that represents Latin’s “cultural manifestation” of violence (Vieira, 54). Inspired by Italian Neo-Realism, both of the documentary and fiction films utilize real people to demonstrate the truth of violence in Brazil whether it is on an animal, an inanimate object such a soccer ball or on each other. This movement, and the effectiveness on documentary and fiction film is proving to be inspiring young Brazilian filmmakers such as Maria Clara Escobar. Having the opportunity to view her film, Os Dias Com Ele (2013) at the Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, I can see the influence of Cinema Novo as she uses memory to blur the lines of fiction and documentary to reflect on Brazil dictatorship of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I predict the value of constructing documentaries and fiction with this approach will only grow.


Bus 174. Dir. Jose Padilha. Zazen Producoes. 2002. Film.

“Bus 174Documentary about the Kidnapping of a Bus Full of People in Brazil.” Empireonline.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

City of God. Dir. Fernando Meirelles. Miramax Films. 2002. Film.

Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing about Film. Second Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1992, 6-15.

Os Dia Com Ele. Dir. Maria Clara Escobar. 2013. Film.

Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Reuben, Ross. “Ethnofiction and the Work of Jean Rouch | UK Visual Anthropology.” UK Visual Anthropology. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Russell, Jamie. BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Siska, William C. “Metacinema: A Modern Necessity.” Literature/Film Quarterly, 7.1 (1979): 285-9.

Smaill, Belinda. The Documentary – Politics, Emotion, Culture, 2010, p 182-188

Vieira, Else R. P., Cidade de Deus: Challenges to Hollywood, Steps to The Constant Gardener In Contemporary Latin American Cinema (pp 51-66).


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