has been reviewing films for
Variety, where this review originally
appeared, since 2000. He is also a regular contributor to Indiewire.com,
where he has published a series of interviews with leading international
filmmakers, including Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Haneke.
It's a frog-eat-frog
world according to Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), in which
tyro helmer (first time director) Jason Kohn makes a series
of scintillating connections between one of the planet's largest
amphibian breeders, a Sao Paulo plastic surgeon, a fat-cat politician
and a professional kidnapper, each of whom plays a role in the
sprawling cycle of violence and corruption that is modern Brazil.
Crammed into a lively 85-minute package delivered with loads
of dark humour and cinematic flair, this worthy winner of Sundance's
Grand Jury prize for documentary should post solid theatrical
numbers and see even brisker ancillary biz.
The film establishes
its irreverent tone right from the opening sequence in which
excerpts from a grainy black-and-white ransom video are intercut
with a staged sequence of a mannequin head being placed in a
bulletproof glass box and shot at by an offscreen firearm. Then
it's on to the frog farm, where the gregarious proprietor, Deniz,
tells Kohn about his work while nimbly sidestepping repeated
requests to discuss a certain ‘scandal’ in which
the farm was involved. The interview (like many in the film)
is shot by Kohn in a striking widescreen composition, with the
Portuguese-speaking subject seated in the foreground and an
English translator seated in the background, both staring directly
into the camera.
Kohn spins a tangled
real-life narrative in which the frogs are traced back to Jader
Barbalho, a charismatic tycoon who has held every possible political
office in Brazil save for the presidency. As a senator, we're
told, Barbalho was in charge of administering a fund meant to
foster economic growth in the Amazon and other poor regions
of the country. Barbalho is alleged to have embezzled millions
and set up ersatz businesses to launder the money. He avoided
prosecution because of a Brazilian law exempting sitting politicians
from standing trial in civilian courts.
As Kohn tries to
score face time with Barbalho himself, Manda Bala hopscotches
between the bustling metropolis of Sao Paulo, the capital city
of Brasilia and the rural province of Para, during which time
we're introduced to the Brazilian district attorney and others
who have devoted their lives to trapping Barbalho.
But Barbalho is
hardly all that Kohn has on his mind. A large section of the
film is also given over to Brazil's thriving kidnapping trade,
from a former victim who had her ears sliced off by her captors,
to the brilliant physician (Dr. Juarez Avelar), who has made
a cottage industry out of aural reconstruction surgeries (one
of which we see onscreen in graphic detail), to the booming
businesses of private helicopters and bulletproof automobiles
-- requisite accessories for wealthy Brazilians.
Kohn sits down with an actual kidnapper called Magrinho, who nonchalantly
compares the economics of abduction and drug-trafficking against
those of robbing banks (his former pursuit) and plainly surmises
that, in Brazil, "You either steal with a gun or a pen."
Though Kohn occasionally
seems to cast his net a bit too widely, he ultimately draws
the film's disparate story threads together by arguing that
the greed of a man like Barbalho and the ‘work’
of a man like Magrinho (who ultimately seems almost like a latter-day
Robin Hood) are not completely unrelated; rather that one gives
rise to the other and will continue to do so until significant
reforms are made to the Brazilian class and justice systems.
It is a point Kohn, who is half-Brazilian, makes implicitly,
never didactically. Manda Bala emerges as that rare
film about the developing world that does not rub our privileged
first-world noses in poverty and famine, but rather merely abides
by that sage journalistic advice: "Follow the money."
his debut feature, Kohn, who began his film career as an assistant
to Errol Morris, seems to have learned much from his former employer's
deadpan comic sensibility and sense of the rich visual possibilities
of nonfiction filmmaking. Tech credits and production values are
outstanding, owing in large part to Kohn's insistence to shoot
on film -- a rarity for documentaries nowadays. Duly awarded by
the Sundance jury, camerawoman Heloisa Passos' colour-saturated
lensing is a particular standout, as is the razor-sharp editing
of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden.