Manda Bala: Stranger than fiction

Documentary reveals a Brazil way out of balance

In 1962, the Italian shocker Mondo Cane was released, inaugurating the "shockumentary" cycle of "mondo" movies dedicated to prurient displays of cruelty and extreme behavior in non-Western cultures.

The spirit of mondo also infects the documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), a bizarre, often riveting film about contemporary Brazil.

But while the mondo cycle of films strove to exploit and repulse, Manda Bala aims for a very different effect, something close to the objective of Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare about the economic exploitation of Africa.

Like that film, director Jason Kohn's Manda Bala suggests a world insanely out of balance, where the poor prey upon the wealthy, who then retreat deeper and deeper into their alternative, equally freakish world. They drive bulletproof Mercedes and Porsches (it appears not to have occurred to them to drive less ostentatious cars), take evasive-driving classes to outwit potential kidnappers, and use helicopters to land on rooftop heliports – thus avoiding the criminal element altogether. And when worse comes to worst and one of them is kidnapped (Brazil boasts one kidnapping per day), there is always the friendly local plastic surgeon. Dr. Avelar, a man with a God complex, has perfected some innovative ways of reconstructing the torn, sliced, sawed- and chewed-off ears of the wealthy that kidnappers routinely amputate.

Despite the rising popularity in documentary over the last 10 years, it is the content rather than the aesthetic possibilities of the form that seem to have most captivated filmmakers. But Manda Bala raises the bar in terms of the striking visual possibilities of documentary with its intentionally grainy, color-drenched photography reminiscent of not only the mondo films but also Errol Morris' beautiful, deadpan early works, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. Kohn takes a similarly "weird, but true" approach as Morris, and the resulting film is as troubling as it is exquisite.

Manda Bala 4 stars Directed by Jason Kohn. Opens Fri., Nov. 30. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Not rated. In Portuguese with English subtitles. (View trailer)