I've seen very few films with such a rich vibrancy of threat found in "Manda Bala." The picture just walks on air describing inexcusable violations of political faith and public safety, brilliantly forming a claustrophobic visual representation of a country struggling to live under the growing cancer of crime.
The setting is Brazil, and corruption rules the land with an iron fist. "Manda Bala" gives the viewer a front row seat to this elaborate system of sins, tracking the circular pattern of violence from the very top of the governmental food chain to the lowest form of criminal life stalking shadows of the slums. The brew is toxic and bottomless, ironically trapped in a land of overwhelming beauty and passion.
"Manda Bala" is an innovative creation that doesn't strut like other documentaries. In fact, I'm not sure it's a documentary at all; the picture employs a strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking techniques that blur lines of reporting and interview. This fresh approach is the springboard that makes "Manda Bala" leap right off the screen and burrows itself into the viewer's senses. Kohn puts you into the heart of Brazil; that tightness of tens of millions of people all fighting for their fortune, reducing themselves to barbarism to grasp a ray of light that pulls them out of poverty.
Of course, the sickness starts at the very top. "Manda Bala" is really the story of Jader Barbalho, a profoundly loved politician who proceeded to bleed his country dry through unimaginable orchestrations of money laundering and theft, opening a chasm between the country's rich and poor, which has led to a swiftly growing crime wave that shows no sign of fatigue.
"Manda Bala" centers on a frog farm, which played a vital role in Barbalho's scheme. Kohn uses the strange harvest of frogs as his most powerful visual tool, revealing an uncomfortable tranquility inside the symbolic raising and eventual disembowelment of these creatures for mass profit. The film is fascinated with the fragments born from this corruption, which takes the film to the streets of cities like Sao Paulo to better recognize the cycle of pain going on.
Among the many crimes against society being perpetrated in Brazil, kidnapping is number one with a bullet. "Manda Bala" uncovers the many stages of abduction: the terrified victim (as seen in video footage), the unrealistic demands of ransom, acts of violence to escalate the situation (removal of the ear is a popular button pusher), the anti-kidnapping squads, and finally the plastic surgeons who piece the victims back together and assume a nutty sense of glory from their surgical mastery.
The picture also introduces us to the fears of the common man, caught in the warfare between economic gangs, searching for a way to survive in an explosive environment. Captured shopping for bulletproofed cars, contemplating several microchip implants, or taking anti-kidnapping driving instruction, this weary individual is emblematic of the decreasing middle-class in Brazil, who has crossed into a comforting full-blown panic about their home field advantage, boxing themselves into thick glass to stay alive.
Intriguingly, the anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio) image rests an inch or so higher on the average display, presumably to make room for the bulky subtitles. I've never personally come into contact with a presentation like this before, and it's definitely distracting at first. Thankfully the presentation of "Manda Bala" is striking, with the unusual widescreen cinematography preserved on the DVD with amazing detail, strong colors, and powerful black levels. Strangely, the print shows some wear and tear, but the defects are kept to a minimum.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital is lifted by the booming Brazilian soundtrack, which truly brings this documentary to life. Interviews are presented crisp and clear, but the volume needs to turned way up for this movie and its sheer sonic bounce.
A feature-length audio commentary from director Jason Kohn, and producers Joey Frank and Jared Ian Goldman attempts to break down the complicated areas of "Manda Bala," from production to interpretation. These guys are exceptionally chatty, and their history with this picture reveals plenty of juicy tidbits of production and vitriolic rants against the corrupt politicians viewed in the movie.
Kohn can be a bit abrasive with some goofy, youthful thunderbolts of profanity, but his energy is a kick to hear, especially when he explains the picture's voyage from an experimental leap of faith to an intricate feature film captured in multiple phases; the confusion that arrived when "City of God" entered into the exhibition community; the constraints of shooting on film (a choice these guys should be hailed for); and the tricky path that lead to interviewing an actual kidnapper (some fantastic stories here).
It's an appealing listen, well worth the time.
Deleted scenes (totaling approximately 23 minutes) flesh out a few of the political and medical concepts of the film, but by far the most interesting of the batch is a return to the frog farms. Again, it's hypnotic footage, and the more time spent there the better.
No theatrical trailer for "Manda Bala" is offered on this DVD.
Soon "Manda Bala" returns to Barbalho, who dodged prosecution in numerous ways over the last few decades, keeping his political future bright by buying votes off the poor and exploiting their misery. Kohn asserts that Barbalho, and his manipulation of the government-subsidized SUDAM project (intended to allow the poorest Amazonian regions to flourish), is the golden ticket to understanding how Brazil has crumbled. With all the wonders, horrors, and witnesses in the gorgeously photographed and hauntingly mounted voyage into social disorder, it's impossible to disagree.