Even though documentarian Jason Kohn is an American—and a protégé of Errol Morris—his debut film, Manda Bala, channels the kinetic style of Brazilian "social problem" films like City Of God and Bus 174. Stunningly photographed and often darkly comic, Manda Bala considers the epidemic of kidnapping in Brazil's urban areas, along with its unexpected cultural byproducts. Kohn keeps the pace brisk, set to the beat of breezy Brazilian pop, and between the helicopter shots of cityscapes and the use of onscreen translators, Manda Bala presents the friendliest story of human degradation imaginable, even with the occasional footage of frog cannibalism and human ears getting sliced off.
Manda Bala weaves together a fairly complicated story, connecting a rural frog farm to famously corrupt politician Jáder Barbalho, and to a string of people whose lives have been changed by kidnapping. We meet a woman who was abducted for a week, and had her ears mailed to her family. We meet a plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructing ears. We meet people who sell bulletproof cars and GPS implants. And we meet the various journalists and activists who've tried to expose the way Brazil's leaders are too busy lining their pockets to address the social inequities that have led to children in the street playing "kidnapper and victim" instead of cops and robbers.
Kohn maintains a sardonic tone while introducing all these people and their problems, and he keeps cutting back to the frog farm, where writhing heaps of amphibians push against each other to get to the surface, and occasionally swallow each other whole when they haven't received enough feed. The analogy is thuddingly obvious, and rich only when Kohn ties in Barbalho's somewhat tragic rise from poverty to tyranny. Manda Bala is exciting and stylish, and Kohn knows exactly what he wants the movie to say. But he makes most of his points in the first 10 minutes, with disgusting slow-motion frog footage and sound bites from social scientists pointing out how "corruption is what links all other crimes." The rest is just so much show.