Edgy and provocative but with a weakness for sensationalistic footage, "Manda Bala" (Send a Bullet) is a series of snapshots of Brazil that focuses on perceived connections between the country's violence, poverty and political corruption.
When a Brazilian says his homeland is "headed in a very, very sad, obscure and terrible direction," this film couldn't agree more.
Made with energy and style, "Manda Bala" won two awards at Sundance, the grand jury prize for documentary for director Jason Kohn and the cinematography award for Heloisa Passos.
That's in part a tribute to the film's eye for the unexpected, which fits with Kohn's background as a protégé of master documentarian Errol Morris.
Though it's never expressed directly, Kohn's thesis is an intriguing one. He sees Brazil as the setting for a Darwinian struggle between the country's enormously rich and powerful elite and its unimaginably poor lower class. The rich exploit the poor or are indifferent to their plight, and the poor try to get their own back by kidnapping and brutalizing the rich.
What a system.
To illustrate those points, "Manda Bala" cuts back and forth between people involved in a major Brazilian corruption scandal and those involved in the more violent world of kidnapping for ransom.
The corruption part uses as its focus the largest frog farm in the world, located in central Brazil and the venue for cinematographer Passos' surreal shots of frogs without end. Though "Manda Bala" never explains its opening statement that it's "a film that cannot be shown in Brazil," these amphibians are presumably not the problem.
The farm, as it turns out, was apparently part of a money-laundering operation set up by one of the country's most powerful and most corrupt politicians who, though implicated in numerous scandals, have never been imprisoned.
Operating with equal impunity are the gangs in the city of Sao Paolo that specialize in ransom kidnapping. "Manda Bala" features candid interviews with people who've been touched in one way or another by this epidemic: a young woman who spent 16 days in captivity, a gang leader who is unapologetic about his work, a plastic surgeon who has grown wealthy by pioneering an ear-replacement technique, even a macho member of the police's anti-kidnapping squad who is only too aware of how little 80 men can do in a city of 20 million when there is a kidnapping a day to contend with.
"Manda Bala" is especially interested in the numerous cottage industries that have grown up in Sao Paolo around the protection and care of kidnapping targets, both potential and actual.
So we hear, in often bizarre detail, about rich people who bulletproof their cars, use helicopters to commute, even consider having microchips implanted in their bodies so they can easily be traced if abducted.
As part of his examination of this violent side of the Brazilian world, director Kohn does demonstrate a weakness for scenes with excessive shock value.
The filmmaker treats us to truly graphic videos of that ear reconstruction surgery and he doesn't hesitate to show horrific demand-for-ransom videos made by kidnappers that show victims having their earlobes cut off and then writhing in agony after the deed is done.
Still, these moments aside, as a glimpse of what is considered business-as-usual in one of the largest countries in the world, "Manda Bala" holds our interest.
While it's hard to shake the sense that the filmmaker feels superior to his subjects, it's interesting to see someone embracing the populist notion that songwriter Woody Guthrie immortalized in his "Pretty Boy Floyd": "As through this world I've wandered, I've seen lots of funny men. Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen."
No MPAA rating. In English and Portuguese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.