[EDITOR's NOTE: Steve Ramos' review of "Manda Bala" appeared as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the Sundance Film Festival in January.]
Much attention is being made over first-time feature filmmaker Jason Kohn's apprenticeship with documentary master Errol Morris but the twenty-something director deserves unshared acclaim for his bright, beautiful and utterly engrossing omnibus film "Manda Bala" (translated from Portuguese to "Send a Bullet") Like the multiple storyline in Morris' landmark film "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," Kohn spends time with a variety of Brazilians, rich and poor, good and bad, city dwellers and rural dwellers. He does this in order to capture the spirit of contemporary Brazil and make the powerful case that increasing violence and political corruption sum up the South American nation today.
Subjects in front of Kohn's camera include owners of a rural frog farm caught up in money laundering, a female kidnapping victim who recounts her torture, a Sao Paulo businessman who spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on his personal safety, a wealthy plastic surgeon, the police detectives who struggle to keep the wealthy safe and a vicious criminal who makes them his targets.
"Manda Bala" is spider web moviemaking in the spirit of a Samba dance but it's to Kohn's credit, as well as his editors Doug Abel, Andy Grieve and Jenny Golden, that everything connects with crystal clarity. Cinematographer Heloisa Passos makes everything beautiful, no matter how squalid the surroundings. "Manda Bala's" standout images are its scenes of vast economic disparity, a gleaming modern, high-rise apartment building standing at the edge of a filthy shanty village.
As is often the case with film smorgasbords, some of the players shine brighter than others. An interview with a leading Brazilian politician may be the coup of "Manda Bala" but the most emotional moments come from a criminal leader who disperses his ill-gotten cash like some Robin Hood of the Sao Paulo slums.
Like another Sundance documentary, the global warming film "Everything's Cool," Kohn tells his Brazilian story with a sense of playfulness. What puts Kohn's film a notch above, and arguably the best documentary I've watched so far, is that the humor serves its humanistic theme, that violence can become a nation's main culture industry and tie a diverse population together with sometimes tragic results.
Sixty-fiive years ago, Orson Welles traveled to Brazil to make his film "It's All True," an unfinished but fascinating look at Carnival. Kohn pays homage to Welles with "Manda Bala," an effort every bit as spectacular as that long-ago movie. Sure, current opinions on Welles vary, but for a debut filmmaker making his first splash, I can't imagine a better comparison.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
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