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Movie Review

A surreal world of Brazilian kidnappers

Jason Kohn's documentary suggests a link between political corruption and kidnappings of children of the rich. Jason Kohn's documentary suggests a link between political corruption and kidnappings of children of the rich. (City Lights Pictures)

The new documentary "Manda Bala" merely grazes the surface of political corruption in Brazil. But what a surface! The problem seems as vast as it is deep.

Directed by Jason Kohn, who worked for two years with Errol Morris, the film centers on Sao Paulo's kidnapping industry and suggests a causal relationship between elected officials who have ignored the people and slum-bound thugs who snatch the children of the well-to-do for ransom. The crimes are born of political neglect. The title is Portuguese for "send a bullet" and the clever American tag line is "the rich steal from the poor; the poor steal the rich."

The movie has a great flashiness - copter shots that swoop over Sao Paulo; swift, playful editing; and pop-operatic sequences driven by catchy songs. Out of the stylistic polish arises a vividly assembled nexus of kidnappers, victims, cops, politicians, lawyers, and one gentleman operating a frog farm that might be a money-laundering front for Jader Barbalho, a hugely distrusted senator, who, amazingly enough, sits for an interview with the filmmaker.

Rather than employ a lot of subtitles (the ones that do appear are well used), Kohn has decided to pair his Brazilian subjects with English-speaking translators. For the most part, they sit in sunny locations and talk directly into the camera, which frames them in medium-long shots. The effect is evocatively portrait-like.

With other material and other subjects, Kohn's chic and self-consciously styled approach might seem gaudy or touristic or too flattering. But the world of these kidnappings is as bizarre and surreal as the crimes are gruesome and terrifying. They're impossible to sex up. Throughout, the movie includes videotapes from actual kidnappings (one set of thieves hold a child's fingernail up to the camera). The film even spends time with a doctor who performs expensive reconstructive plastic surgeries on victims. There's a lyric sequence of him working his graphic magic.

The Sao Paulo Kohn presents is a woefully underpoliced megalopolis whose troubles bloom from a kernel of corruption. According to a historian in the film, it's all institutional, dating back centuries to the arrival of the Portuguese. The class system more or less grew out of crookedness, and, as is the case with any such hierarchy, the haves either exploited or ignored the have-nots. Since Sao Paulo is the country's economic capital it's also a magnet for the poor, a beacon for the destitute rotting in the surrounding states.

Which brings us back to the frogs on that farm (it's the biggest such plantation in the world), living in cramped quarters, trying frantically, uselessly to free themselves from large plastic bags. They're then hung, splayed, boxed, breaded. The farmer says his amphibious charges turn cannibalistic only when they're hungry and desperate enough. Nobody in the movie points it out, but as a human parallel, his observation is disturbingly apt.

Wesley Morris can be reached at For more on movies, go to nation.

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Manda Bala

Directed by: Jason Kohn

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 85 minutes

In Portuguese, with subtitles