Manda Bala (City Light Pictures, NR)

film_manda.jpgWhile a young man from the Brazilian slums with no education can make a living as a bank robber or drug dealer, he can do three times as well as a kidnapper.







Magrinho is an economic success story: born to a poor family who migrated to São Paolo from Brazil’s impoverished north, he runs a business which supports a family of ten and has created many jobs for more recent migrants. His trade: kidnapping. It’s simple economics—while a young man from the Brazilian slums with no education can make a living as a bank robber or drug dealer, he can do three times as well as a kidnapper, and the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty in Brazil’s cities creates ample opportunity to practice his chosen profession. That’s not to dispute the brutal nature of kidnapping: the victims are often women or children, and if the ransom is slow to arrive the kidnappers may find it necessary to hack off an ear or two to send to the victim’s relatives along with a videotape of the amputation process.

Magrinho is not the worst person in Manda Bala, however: he’s small fry in comparison with Jadar Barbahlo, a remarkably corrupt politician who has held every elected position in Brazil except the presidency. One of the more notable scandals associated with Mr. Barbahlo was SUDAM, a multi-billion dollar development program intended to foster economic development in Amazonia. Most of the money disappeared, very little development took place and the north remains as poor as ever, resulting in a steady stream of people migrating to Brazil’s large cities. Since their prospects for legitimate work are limited, this creates a perpetually refreshed labor pool for Magrinho and his competitors.

The theme of Manda Bala ("send a bullet," in Portuguese) is that everything is related. Brazil has the greatest income inequality in Latin America, and the cities of modernist skyscrapers and luxury homes for the rich are surrounded by ever-growing favelas occupied by the poor and desperate. Official corruption is encouraged by a legal system which grants sitting politicians immunity from prosecution and tolerates overt vote-buying. Concentration of media ownership aids the already-powerful: Barbahlo owns radio and television stations as well as the only daily newspaper in Belém, his center of operations. Crime also creates new business opportunities: there’s a growth market in bulletproof cars and evasion-driving courses, and the kidnappers’ propensity for amputations prompted plastic surgeon Dr. Juarez Avelar to develop a streamlined technique for ear reconstruction.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Manda Bala may be the most visually creative film you will see this year. Director Jason Kohn makes his points by juxtaposition, allowing viewers to draw the connections between Magrinho and Barbalho, between grainy kidnapping tapes, footage of a surgical ear reconstruction, and helicopter shots of gleaming cities and windswept beaches which could have been created by a tourist promotion board. It’s all framed by a sort of demented nature documentary about the world’s largest frog farm (possibly financed by stolen SUDAM funds) whose owner assures us that while frog cannibalism does exist, it usually occurs only in times of scarcity. | Sarah Boslaugh

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