Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Coming Soon: Manda Bala

Americans essentially have two cinematic views of Brazil. One is the lush romanticism of films like Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus and Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova. The other is the grittier naturalism of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu. Jason Kohn’s new documentary, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), is definitely more in line with the latter, giving audiences an inside glimpse into the rampant kidnappings, widespread political corruption, and frog farms of contemporary Brazil, arguing they are all connected.

As Bala opens, it announces itself as “a film that can’t be shown in Brazil.” Whether that is true or not, it certainly was not produced in conjunction with the tourism board or the chamber of commerce. It introduces us to São Paolo through its luxury skyscrapers, each with a heliport, to facilitate the only means of travel considered safe by many residents. Kidnappings are literally a daily occurrence. The practice of slicing off ears to send as proof of life is so widespread it makes plastic surgeon Dr. Juarez Avelar wealthy and famous for his specialized reconstructive technique.

We also meet Jadar Barbalho, the former President of the Senate and governor of the Para province. He was implicated in the plundering of literally billions of dollars from SUDAM, the state development agency for the Amazon region, but remains immune from prosecution by virtue of holding national elected office. In the ending credits he is billed as the “corrupt politician” (the filmmakers do bring an attitude to bear on their subjects). As part of the SUDAM scandal he allegedly embezzled $9,000,000 earmarked for building a $300,000 frog farm. It is that frog farm that provides some of the more surreal images interspersed throughout the film. For instance, the audience is shown the inner workings of the frog slaughterhouse, and it is not particularly pretty (you may never eat frog again after seeing the film). However, the most disturbing images come from kidnappers’ videotapes.

A woman called “Patricia” represents those legions of victims. She endured a harrowing ordeal that required Dr. Avelar’s services for both ears on her eventual release. We also meet a kidnapper, called “Magrinho,” who tries to justify himself as a Subcommander Marcos style class warrior. Despite his claims of using ransom money to pave his neighborhood, the streets we see him walk show no sign of pavement or maintenance of any sort. He is simply a sociopath—one of many, evidently. The heroes of Bala are people like Camila, and the entrepreneur who calls himself “Mr. M,” whose work helps drive the engine of the local economy, but lives in fear despite his love for his city of São Paolo.

In spite of the widespread crime and corruption Bala documents, it cannot fully escape the romantic appeal of Brazil. Heloisa Passos’ gorgeous cinematography captures the color and vibrancy of Brazil’s architecture and landscapes. While no original soundtrack was composed, a wide selection of Brazilian music was licensed creating an impressive cross-section of the country’s music. Artists represented include: Jorge Ben, Baden Powell, Tom Zé, Tim Maia, Egberto Gismonti, Trio Mocoto, Os Mutantes, Jorge Mautner, Alceu Valença, Gal Costa, and of course, Caetano Veloso.

While Bala can surely tie the crooked Barbalho to the frog farm, it does not explicitly connect the dots between the national political corruption and the endemic street crime terrorizing São Paolo’s citizens, as the filmmakers intended. Still, it remains a consistently fascinating film that is always a pleasure to listen to, even when it presents bizarre and disturbing images. It opens in New York at the Angelika on August 17th.