Brazil’s Mixed Bag


Manda Bala’ Dissects Everything from Frog Farms to Kidnappings

At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” scored the Documentary Grand Jury Prize (Independent Film Competition). That’s quite an impressive feat for the first feature film from the 20-something team of Jason Kohn (director-producer), D.C.-raised Joey Frank (producer-assistant director), and Jared Ian Goldman (producer).

“Manda Bala” can be described—if not completely—as a sweeping look at Brazil’s frog farms, corruption, kidnappings and plastic surgery. Yes, that’s seemingly quite a mixed bag. In fact, Kohn—who has family from Brazil—started shooting what he found to be interesting bits without much of an idea as to what the story was going to be in the end.

It all makes a lot more sense knowing that Kohn is a protégé of Errol Morris (“The Fog of War,” “The Thin Blue Line”), a master at the skillful weaving together of apparently disparate subjects into a coherent, fascinating work. After more than four years, things seemed to work themselves out in “Manda Bala.”

So what’s the tale? Well, frog breeding is a quickly growing business in Brazil. One leading frog farm is purported to be a money-laundering vehicle for Jader Barbalho, a charming business leader. As a senator, he administered economic development funds, allegedly embezzling a fortune meant to help the poor.

Brazil continues to be a country of haves and haves-not. That makes kidnapping another leading business. In fact, it’s so common that it’s created a pervasive paranoia among the rich. This constant fear has been fueling rapid sales growth of private helicopters, bulletproof-armored vehicles, and plastic reconstructive surgery for the ears that kidnappers have a penchant for chopping off.

A memorable visual technique that Kohn used includes shooting interviews in unique wide-screen framing. Up front, the subject speaks in Portuguese, alternating with the English translator, who’s placed in the ear of the same frame. A star interview subject is Magrinho, a bank robber turned kidnapper and drug dealer, who conjures the spirit of Robin Hood. He wryly observes, “You either steal with a pen or a gun.”

Like Morris’s films, “Manda Bala” has its share of black humor, which serves to enliven some of the deadly serious subject matter. Kohn learned a lot when he worked for Morris, including how to make a documentary that an audience finds to be as compelling to view as a Hollywood thriller. Putting memorable visuals into an almost nonchalant atmosphere, “Manda Bala” makes serious sociopolitical analysis pretty digestible.

“Manda Bala” deserves to be seen in a movie theater to appreciate its full glory on the big screen. Director of photography Heloísa Passos grabbed the Documentary Cinematography Award at Sundance. Fine editing by Andy Grieve, Doug Abel and Jenny Golden keeps the action moving along, complemented by the score’s brisk rhythm.

Manda Bala
(Send a Bullet)
(English and Portuguese with subtitles; 85 min.; scope)
AMC Loews Dupont Circle

4.5 out of 5 stars

Slaves of ‘Trade’

After the premiere screenings of “Trade” at Sundance 2007, audiences gave it standing ovations. The powerful feature focuses on the forced journey of sex slaves from Mexico into the United States.

The fictionalized film is based on a widely publicized 2004 New York Times Magazine cover story by investigative reporter Peter Landesman about the international trafficking of sex slaves.

Inspired by investigative journalism, the story doesn’t flinch at depicting the horrors of the worldwide trade of sex slaves, exposing the audience to a relatively unknown subject. “Trade” is shot to look like a docudrama, evoking a thick atmosphere of hyperrealism that propels the powerful story. German director Marco Kreuzpainter (“Summer Storm”) manages to maintain the tension even through scenes without much action.

In Mexico City, sex traffickers kidnap Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), a 13-year-old girl, intending to sell her into sexual slavery. During her horrific journey, she’s befriended by Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a young Polish woman who’s also been captured by the gang. After crossing the Rio Grande, the smugglers’ destination is a New Jersey stash house.

Jorge (Cesar Ramos), Adriana’s 17-year-old brother, courageously decides to track her whereabouts after seeing her with the kidnappers on the streets of Mexico City. He has some experience on the streets, but he’s far out of his league up against this international organization of Russian gangsters. Fortunately, he manages to get help from Ray (Kevin Kline), a Texas lawman whose family had its own personal victim of sex slavery.

The fictionalized script by Jose Rivera (Oscar-nominated for “The Motorcycle Diaries”) depends on a string of rather coincidental situations that belie the Hollywood affiliations of the producers, American Rosilyn Heller (former Columbia vice president) and German Roland Emmerich (director of action spectacles such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Patriot,” Godzilla” and “Independence Day”). Thus the plot of “Trade” includes some rather improbable results that are definitely crowd-pleasing, but after stomaching a lot of bitter reality, perhaps the audience deserves a little sweet reward.

When “Trade” screened at this past June’s Munich Film Festival, Kreuzpainter won the Bernhard Wicki Film Award (for “artists in the film industry whose work builds bridges and inspires tolerance and humanitarianism”), and lead actor Kevin Kline took home the CineMerit Award for his body of work culminating in “Trade.”

(English, Spanish, Russian and Polish with subtitles; 120 min.; scope)
Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4 out of 5 stars

Meaty ‘Jane Austen’

Robin Swicord is no stranger to literary adaptations, having penned screenplays for “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Little Women.” She deftly adapts “The Jane Austen Book Club,” based on Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 bestseller, and takes the directorial reins for the first time. The result is a chick flick with some solid substance.

After a repertory screening of writer-director Patricia Rozema’s 1999 “Mansfield Park,” French teacher Prudie (Emily Blunt) is distraught that—from her point of view—Austen’s original novel has been butchered. Thus is born a women’s book club to read and analyze six of Austen’s books, with one member making special preparations to lead the study for each book.

The sextet includes Prudie, Jocelyn (Maria Bello), Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), their older pal Bernadette (Kathy Baker), and Sylvia’s lesbian daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace). Oh, a token male gets thrown in—Grigg (Hugh Dancy)—a nerdy (but wealthy) software developer. Of course, all six book club members will have relationship issues, which coincidentally parallel one of the six stories by Austen.

The engaging dialogue is fueled by choice excerpts from Austen’s own perceptive words—appropriate for any day and age. The ensemble cast—which also includes Lynn Redgrave, Jimmy Smits, Marc Blucas and Parisa Fitz-Henley—is uniformly excellent at revealing a spectrum of emotions spanning drama and humor.

Though it’s not a big-budget action blockbuster, “The Jane Austen Book Club” is packed with enough meat for the boys to savor, if they give it a chance. In fact, that’s what a character says about Austen’s books themselves.

“The Jane Austen Book Club”
(English; 105 min.)

4 out of 5 stars

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.