MUNICH -- Debut filmmaker Jason Kohn's "Manda Bala -- Send a Bullet" is both compelling and excruciating. It's as well-directed as a thriller or a terrific episode of Fox's "24." But its real-life violence makes "24" seem tame, as in the opening video in which kidnappers waving rifles at a prone female figure tell her husband that they will kill her and the children if he doesn't meet their ransom demands.
"Manda Bala" is not for the faint-hearted, so it's unlikely to become the kind of hit its slick look and brilliant soundtrack might presuppose. But it is so well-done -- it won Sundance's Grand Jury and Cinematography prizes for documentaries in January -- that it has a good chance of reaching a large audience.
Once you get past the gore, which takes many forms -- from frogs eating each other to a long sequence in a plastic surgeon's theater as he restores a cut-off ear -- "Manda Bala" makes a powerful statement about the consequences of wanting the good life at any cost. Most docus about Latin America focus on the miseries of poverty; "Manda Bala" looks at the terrors of being rich in a country where the haves and have-nots live side by side.
One major strand in this multilayered docu focuses on the case of Jader Barbalho, a powerful politician from northern Brazil who was arrested and then released pending further investigations into a billion-dollar corruption scandal in 2002. Barbalho was accused of embezzling from a huge fund meant to support the economic infrastructure in Brazil's poor north, allegedly creating phony companies and then designating millions in funding for them. Kohn follows Barbalho's career arc in archive footage and talks to the prosecutors who were willing to take him on.
Another strand features "Mr. M.," a computer specialist in Sao Paolo who says at the beginning of his interview: "I have to somehow manage to get home from here. So it's a risk." Mr. M. owns a couple of bullet-proof cars, carries one wallet for robbers and another hidden wallet with his important papers, and wants to be injected with a subcutaneous implant so that his location is always known to the authorities in case he is kidnapped. Kohn shows us a special driving course for armored-car owners and introduces us to the Sao Paolo police's kidnapping unit, who are so cool they make Mel Gibson's "Lethal Weapon" persona seem cartoonish.
Then there is the young woman who was kidnapped at gunpoint and held in a box for 16 days. Her ears were cut off and sent to her family along with a video of the "procedure," as it is called by the plastic surgeon who restores them. In the pursuit of this strand to its logical conclusion, Kohn interviews a "professional" kidnapper in a ski mask toward film's end, who makes the connection to corrupt politicians like Barbalho by commenting laconically that in Brazil you either steal with a gun or with a pen.
Kohn's brilliant cinematographer Heloisa Passos and his crack editing team of Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden complement the almost omnipresent soundtrack by top Brazilian artists who were clearly selected not for their breezy "Girl from Ipanema"-type rhythms but for their willingness to descend into darkness. That's what is demanded of the viewers as well, but Kohn makes it worth it.
MANDA BALA -- SEND A BULLET
City Lights Pictures
Whitest Pouring Films
Director-screenwriter: Jason Kohn
Producers: Jason Kohn, Jared Ian Goldman, Joey Frank
Director of photography: Heloisa Passos
Music: Jorge Ben, Os Mutantes, Baden Powell, others
Editors: Andy Grieve, Doug Abel, Jenny Golden
Running time -- 85 minutes
No MPAA rating