It's a frog eat frog world...
Jason Kohn's documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) would make a perfect double feature with Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, as both films offer a portrait of the effects of endemic lawlessness and corruption up and down the social ladder in the planet's two most Catholic countries (Italy and Brazil). The differing approaches to the similar subject matter of the 21st century crime-state makes for an interesting comparison. While there is not a single corner of Garrone's Naples that doesn't look dingy, dusty and decaying, specifically crafted with an eye for the eradication of anything even slightly gorgeous or glamorous, there is not a single frame of Kohn's film that doesn't look lush, visually captivating and thoroughly hypnotizing. Combined with a cracking, and virtually omnipresent soundtrack of Brazilian pop music, Manda Bala proves that there is no level of human tragedy in Brazil that doesn't also look sexy and can be danced to. The film reminded me of The Onion World Almanac's subtitle for it's entry on Brazil: "home to the world's most attractive car-jacking victims."
Kohn's film is a kaleidoscopic take on political corruption and class warfare in modern Brazil, but that description really doesn't do it justice. When I say "class warfare", I don't mean it in the sense that we know of in America, as in 'X or Y Democratic or Republican politician is engaging in...", but more in the literal sense of having a kidnapping a day in the city of San Paolo, a city of 20 million that features both endless and teeming slums as well as the largest fleet of privately owned helicopters in the world. As businessman "Mr. M" points out, outside of having to spend a good portion of his income bullet-proofing his Porsche, it is not uncommon in San Paolo to be pulled out of your car at gunpoint at almost any stop light only to be thrown into the trunk of a car with another person already inside. Indeed Kohn's lush camerawork is nicely contrasted with the amateur "film-making" of Brazil's thriving kidnapping industry, whose grainy and irradiated videos of their victims are "produced" as a kind of insurance to guarantee payment from the victim's families.
Manda Bala is by equal turns terrifying and hilarious, a black comedy writ large across an entire nation. The horrifying absurdity of Brazil's epidemic poverty, crime, and culture of political graft and embezzlement is told through a series of characters like the aforementioned "Mr. M", Brazil's Attorney General and various crusading prosecutors and civil attorneys, a kidnapper and kidnappee, a plastic surgeon who has made a booming business out of reconstructing ears from the rib cartilage of people who have had theirs cut off by kidnappers, the cops of San Paolo's badly out manned and outgunned anti-kidnapping unit, and for some reason all of this centers around the world's largest frog farm, which bizarrely was the centerpiece in a pyramid of embezzlement that fleeced at least $2 billion from the government's SUDAM project to develop the Amazon, Brazil's largest and poorest province, and home to the country's most brazenly corrupt politicians.
Kohn's swift camera work and brilliant editing create a grim puzzle where each disparate piece and storyline is allowed enough space to speak for itself before looping back and falling into place to fit into the larger portrait. At times it can get somewhat glib with it's "the rich steal with a pen, the poor with a gun" theme, but that is a minor complaint in a film that vividly portrays what Mr. M describes as a society that has become completely inured to the absurdity of its situation, where criminal culture is not defined in opposition to the law or as an extremity, but rather as fully functional and integrated organ in the body politic. What is it they say again about frogs and boiling water?