In a list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities by homicide rate per 100,000 people published by Mexico’s Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, Brazilian cities take up a staggering 19 places, well ahead of Mexico with 10 cities on the list. Colombia and Venezuela are next, with five and four respectively, arguably more impressive/terrifying considering their relatively smaller population sizes. Why do these cities have such a huge murder rate? Drugs are the obvious answer but of course this goes deeper than that. More serious and inflammatory is the US-led war on drugs, and the never-ending meddling on the part of the United States in Latin American governments, particularly any government even moderately left-wing, democratically-elected or not be damned. Let us not forget the greed of the US citizenry, whose demand and greed for whatever drugs and product they so care to find; no other nation preaches tolerance and humanitarianism so obsessively, only to suck dry the lifeblood of other people through its own obliviousness to the rest of the world. Outside of drug dealers and the US, this mess only benefits undertakers and crime reporters, who undoubtedly have more than a few stories to tell.
One of these stories is told in Last Stop 174. Based on a real incident in 2000 in which a young man, Sandro Rosa do Nascimento, who grew up as a homeless street kid after witnessing the murder of his mother, took a bus hostage. Pumped with drugs and in the middle of a standoff lasting many hours, he demanded not money, but guns and a spare bus driver to replace the previous one, who saw his opportunity to run away and took it. Nascimento, who clearly never had a plan to take anybody hostage eventually agreed to leave the bus with one hostage as a shield. A police officer snuck behind him and attempted to kill him, and in the madness that followed, his hostage, a schoolteacher, was shot dead, most likely by that same policeman, whilst Nascimento was arrested and bundled into a van, wherein he died of asphyxiation. The officers taking him to the police station were acquitted of murder. Brazilian police, incidentally, murder more people a year than any other police force, on top of being incredibly corrupt and stupid. Few, if any, are ever convicted of such crimes.
The Bus 174 hostage crisis has retained a presence in the national consciousness of Brazilians. At the time it was heavily televised, and Nascimento became a flashpoint for all the monumental issues facing the country as he shouted and screamed at the TV cameras about poverty, racism, his brutal upbringing and the brutality of the police. It emerged that he was one of the street kids who survived the Candelaria massacre, when in 1993 a group of off-duty policemen shot dead 8 kids who slept around the square of the Candelaria church in Rio. Again, only two of the culprits were convicted. Since Nascinmento’s death, two feature films have been made about the incident. The first was Bus 174, an award-winning documentary directed by Jose Padilha, later of the rather excellent Elite Squad films and the not-so-excellent Robocop remake. The second is Last Stop 174, with veteran Brazilian director Bruno Barreto at the helm.
Whereas the former film is a documentary and so concerned with facts, the latter is fictional, and therefore freely fictionalises much of Nascimento’s life. Otherwise, the main difference between the two is what they focus upon – Padilha’s film focuses on the events of the hostage crisis itself as well as piecing together Nascimento’s background, with the two constituting roughly a 50/50 split in the film. Barreto instead chooses to focus on the boy’s life beforehand and how he got to the desperate stage he found himself in, with the actual hostage crisis forming only the last 20 minutes or so of the film.
Most interestingly, he chooses to focus on parental figures throughout Nascimento’s life. The setup for much of the film’s narrative drive are to do with mistaken identity. We are introduced to two main characters, Alessandro (Marcello Melo Junior) and Sandro (Michel Gomes). Alessandro is taken away from his mother at an early age for her not paying her debts and is raised by a druglord. He learns how to kill, rob, deal, and all the other good stuff we associate with drug dealers. Sandro however, finds his mother gunned down on the street one day, and thereafter is taken in by his aunt before running away whilst still barely an adolescent. Sandro and Alessandro’s lives intertwine later down the line when they meet in prison. Meanwhile, Alessandro’s mother, now a born-again Christian, searches for her son. She believes she finds him in Sandro, and the boy goes along with this idea more out of need for a mother figure rather than honesty.
If this long-winded set-up mistaken identities sounds melodramatic and contrived that’s because it is. However, at its heart, Last Stop 174 is a message film of sorts, and this set-up does allow the film to explore the effects that parental figures have on Sandro’s life. From the surrogate, born-again mother who mistakes him for her son to the care worker who encourages him to educate himself to the aunt who took him in, all of them do their best to care for him but ultimately it appears the trauma he suffered from seeing his mother die has made it impossible for him to bond with a maternal figure in the same way, despite the fact he desperately craves such a figure. In contrast to that, the father figures in his life largely shun him, with the husbands of neither his aunt or his surrogate mother particularly comfortable about his presence, perceiving him as a threat and a negative influence. Sandro himself, at his core, is a sensitive, gentle character, even caring, and certainly not one predisposed to violence. That he finds himself engaged in violence is thus viewed as an affliction bought upon him by society as a whole: a violent society equals violent people.
Barreto contrasts Sandro’s maternal influences with the paternal figures in Alessandro’s life. As a boy raised by a criminal father figure from a young age, he appears to not even desire a female figure in his life, save for the occasional prostitute. As such he is a macho figure, perpetually angry and violent, with the money and the guns to back it up too. Whereas Sandro struggles through his world meekly, Alessandro careens through it recklessly. One wonder if between the two of them there is an individual capable of surviving.
Through this dynamic Barreto suggests that a major step to solving Brazil’s deep-rooted social problems and poverty requires some strong parental influences; the masculine culture that proliferates through the male-dominated drug gangs leads to wanton violence but it is also created through bad or absentee parenting. The tragedy is that, whilst Alessandro was raised his entire life in such a culture, for Sandro it was through the very same acts of random violence that he was sucked into the black hole. Maybe this is a slightly conservative take on such a subject, but certainly psychological studies have frequently proven the worth of strong parental influences – regardless of gender – on creating mentally healthy individuals, and Last Stop 174 appears to concur.
Despite all this, the film struggles to really transcend its message, the recounting of the story often going by-the-numbers, with little to drag the narrative out of its self-inflicted contrivance and coincidence. Stylistically, Barreto keeps towards the social-realist end of the spectrum, as other Brazilian films of this ilk tend to do, yet Barreto is not the most visually imaginative director and much of the film doesn’t go beyond characters talking on a screen. However, he draws some solid performances out of his cast, from the young non-professionals to the seasoned veterans, so whilst Last Stop 174 sags visually and isn’t told in the most engaging way, the performances and the thematic intricacy of the film keep it afloat.