Killer timing! Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), Jason Kohn's vivid, lean-and-hungry documentary about São Paulo's fatalistic food chain of extreme poverty, violence, unmitigated corruption and overwhelming wealth, arrives just as Vanity Fair's "Viva Brazil!!" issue hits the stands.
Can't we find a new country to fetishize? Trading once again on Brazil's hot 'n' sexy image, the September cover features supermodel Gisèle Bündchen a-splay in a purple boa and metallic mini-dress, and inside is a 23-page spread of oiled-up, long-legged bacchanalia — appended to one page of pure post-colonial piffle from the usually spot-on A.A. Gill. Gill's tribute to Brazil begins with a lingering meditation on the metaphorical import of the rear end, then moves into even more specious jabber: "We all love Brazil," he writes. "All the associations with Brazil are good, warm and sexy." And: "In Brazil, they feel no pain, no responsibility." Granted, Mr. Gill may not have had a chance to see Manda Bala — or visit his subject, it seems — before writing the essay, but what about the similarly disconcerting Central Station, City of God, Bus 174 or any movie made about Brazil, ever?
Gill gets one thing right: In calling Brazil one of the four horsemen of the future (with Russia, China and India), he suggests the Wild West potential and newly jet-powered economy of a country on the move, ready for anything. Kohn suggests the same, tapping into the evil-genius ecosystem of supply-and-demand run amok — in which an epidemic of violent kidnappings spawns not a social revolution but a service industry to support its once and future victims. This is the Brazil they don't talk about in the American glossies.
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With an excess of excitable style, samba music and heady, montage-driven metaphor that threatens to bury his film's key ideas, young-gun director Kohn — a New Yorker with South American roots — has clearly set out to make a splash. So far, he's succeeded: Manda Bala won the 2007 Sundance jury prize for best documentary, and the film's jolting opening sequence is underlined with the boast "A film that cannot be shown in Brazil." Using an approach he openly cribbed from his mentor, Errol Morris, Kohn spends the first half of the movie jumping between seemingly disparate set pieces and story lines that are meant to methodically cohere into an epiphany-driven conclusion. It's not an easy technique to master, and with the information and interviewees coming hard, fast and unrelated, the challenge for the viewer becomes not just to stay on your toes, but to stay focused.
With Brazilian senator and national bête noire Jader Barbalho as his touchstone for all that is wrong with Brazil, Kohn enters his story via a frog farm that may or may not have been used as a money-laundering front for the crooked politician. Taking advantage of Brazil's extremely corruption-friendly legal system — in which politicians are immune from prosecution, allowed Murdochian control over media outlets and permitted to buy votes from the poor who live in the slums named after them — Barbalho allegedly stole several billion dollars from a state development agency for the Amazon region (SUDAM), only to be reelected following his eventual arrest, prosecution and resignation.
We also meet Patricia, who details her experience of being kidnapped and held for ransom, her ears cut off and sent to her family. After her release, Patricia visited Dr. Avelar, a plastic surgeon with monogrammed instruments who pioneered a reconstructive surgery targeting the growing market of earless kidnapping victims. Patricia's tale is just one in Kohn's arsenal of perspectives: An American businessman obsessed with his personal safety, a frog farmer, several attorneys on Barbalho's trail, a cop on the kidnapping beat, a remorseless kidnapper and eventually Barbalho himself are all on hand to tell their side of what is ostensibly the same story of astronomical socioeconomic growth gone awry. Kohn makes the interesting choice of sometimes having a translator in the frame to translate in real time, rather than subtitling, and though it adds a sort of touching, humanizing element to the (sometimes gruesome) testimonials, ultimately there are too many players for any one of them to develop into more than a witness.
Also creating distance between the viewer and the Brazilian people (and with São Paulo's population of 20 million, Brazil's is fundamentally a people problem) is Kohn's almost gleeful insistence on sensational imagery. Actual video of a man's earlobe being sliced away, a gory reconstructive surgery and a sequence in a frog slaughterhouse do more harm than good, dehumanizing Brazil's ugly open secret. (Open in Brazil, anyway.) Why would Americans pay any mind to what may be a critical cautionary tale of what happens when the middle class disappears and leaders are just pawns in a series of big corporate agendas? We're too busy checking out Gisèle's unstoppable ass.