Welcome to Sao Paulo, Brazil, home to 20 million people, the richest of whom live in a forest of tall buildings that stretches to the horizon, while the poorest—an exponentially larger number—live in earthbound slums. The antagonism between the haves and have-nots has grown so dire that the rich shuttle from tower to tower in helicopters or drive bulletproof luxury cars, because kidnappers regularly snatch the wealthy and hold them for ransom, slicing off the victims’ ears and mailing them home until they get paid.
The poor preying on the rich and the rich trying to protect themselves has become an industry, an ecosystem, a way of life. One of the most memorable characters in Jason Kohn’s documentary Manda Bala (“Send a Bullet”) introduces us to is Dr. Avelar, a plastic surgeon who’s had so much practice reconstructing hacked off cartilage that he’s pioneered a new technique. Later in the film, Kohn’s camera catches some random shirtless street kids playing, laughing as one mimes sawing another’s ear from his head.
Taken simply as a flashy, frequently graphic glimpse of a dystopian urban future existing here and now, Kohn’s film fascinates and provokes. Unfortunately, he also goes for more, and at the same time settles for less. Manda Bala cuts together scenes from Sao Paulo’s kidnapping/anti-kidnapping trades with the rise and fall and rise of corrupt politician Jader Barbahlo, an Amazonian development project that devolves into a titanic embezzlement scam, and the world’s largest frog farm. Kohn obviously means to tacitly tie the corruption of Brazilian politics together with its Darwinistic street violence and the frog-eat-frog farm, but glibly hopping from one supremely effed-up thing to another gives the doc an exploitative Mondo Cane feel. Too much suffering is sublimated to the stylish surface here for comfort.