Bus 174 showcases the extent to which criminal activity in Brazilian cities is often predetermined by the economic and social forces inherent in those cities. While Sandro is the perpetrator in a violent situation, his life is a telling narrative about the inequities which force many into the streets for protection and sustenance. The movie also suggest that the inadequacy and inability of Brazilian municipal authorities to handle ever-increasing immigrant populations only ensures the contradictions in wealth that necessitate violence. The film’s documentary technique criss-crosses between the past and present, highlighting the conditions of Sandro’s childhood and creating an increasingly relativistic comprehension of the inescapability of Sandro’s violence.
Latin America’s economic situation post World War II was predicated on import substitution industrialization, whereby importation was controlled and limited to make room for national manufacturing. Meant to spur economic development and position Latin America as another member of the industrialized first world, this process “encouraged the continuance of the migratory tradition of the nation’s hinterland” (Szuchman 22). While barrios had always been a feature of Latin American cities post-contact, the demographic growth engendered by industrial development entailed the spontaneous necessity of slums to handle the immense internal migration. Consequently, as the film showcases in the opening sequence, Latin American cities are places of sharp delineations in wealth, where “high-rise structures share the urban core with crumbling tenements” (Szuchman 25).
The severe impoverishment of the favelas gives rise to endemic violence as a means of survival. The film’s emphasis on the burden of the favelas’ cyclical violence paints a sympathetic portrait of those induced to petty theft, mugging, and carjacking, among others, and makes the audience cognizant of the ways in which the lives of the inhabitants of the slums are shaped by external forces over which they have no sway. Alberto Ramos’ recollection of his carjacking is demonstrative of this humanizing tendency, often emphasized by the criminals themselves: “we’re thieves, man, not killers” one of his captors explains to him after Ramos voices his concern that he’ll be murdered (136). Similarly, Sandro never acts on his threat to kill his hostages in the bus.
So while Sandro commits an act of extreme aggression, endangering the lives of every innocent person on the bus, the audience becomes aware that certain conditions propelled him there. The widespread poverty of the favelas reduces many to violence as a way of assuring protection and income, and contributes substantially to the phenomenon of streetchildren, who are, unfortunately, then compelled to join the hamster wheel of violence and poverty. The message of the film is that Sandro was a victim of these cultural forces and should, perhaps, be pitied, despite his chosen act of violence. To do this, one must divest oneself of cultural prejudices against criminal behavior and realize the multiplicity of economic and social coercions impelling street crime. In light of the widespread poverty, reluctance on the part of municipal authorities to handle the favelas, and the prison conditions which verge on the unconscionable, the violence of Brazil’s streets seems almost compulsory.