"All the associations with Brazil are good, warm, and sexy."
A.A. Gill, Vanity Fair, August 2007
On the flipside, whoever thought murder, corruption and plastic surgery could have such a catchy soundtrack? Bopping to an infectious samba beat, Jason Kohn's gorgeous but lurid Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) takes us through São Paolo's (population: 20 million) sordid food chain of crime, poverty and crooked politicians, unspooling a titillating and terrifying tapestry of Wild West capitalism run amok.
From the politician who assassinates his enemies and embezzles billions (with a "b") of dollars from the Brazilian treasury to the city's rampant kidnappings (and the plastic surgeon who's made a fortune repairing his earless victims) to a government-sponsored frog farm whose bankruptcy has turned man-made ponds into pools of cannibalism, Kohn's harrowing survey of societal dysfunction is a cautionary tale. It tells of how fucked up a nation can become when corrupt politicians become the lapdogs of corporate interests and the middle class is reduced to the last gasp between the mega-rich and very poor.
Brazilian rock, rap and pop blare distractingly from Manda Bala's soundtrack, as beleaguered law enforcement officials, vicious kidnappers, former abductees and paranoid businessmen calmly relate their shocking experiences. So vast is Brazil's economic divide, so overwhelming is its violence and corruption, that their resigned confessions become a form of morbid black comedy.
A student of famed documentarian Errol Morris, New York-based Kohn adopts his mentor's excitable visual style and convoluted storytelling to splashy but confusing effect. Bouncing from one subject to the next and back again, it takes nearly half the film for Kohn's jumbled puzzle pieces to present a meaningful picture. It's an ambitious attempt to jazz up the political, but the young director's brash style often undermines the impact of his ideas.
Visual metaphors replace historical context. And detours to show the bloody reconstruction of a severed ear do more to upset stomachs than morality.
Still, there's no denying the hallucinatory power of juxtaposing São Paolo's sun-bleached cosmopolitanism with its ferocious underbelly of corruption, indigence and crime. Watching the obscenely rich commute in bulletproof sedans and private helicopters in order to avoid the retaliating masses drives home the point that in modern-day Brazil it truly is a frog-eat-frog world.
Opens Friday, Sept. 21, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].