~Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) & Love for Sale

Film Review
August 22, 2007 by JAN ALBERT

It’s the end of summer and if you’re ready for something a little more challenging than TRANSFORMERS, here are two startling new films from Brazil that will take your mind off how f-ed up our nation is.

Manda Bala  1

Manda Bala

Jason Kohn’s first film won the Grand Jury documentary prize at Sundance this year. It takes you far from the beautiful beaches of Rio and exotic revelry of Carnival depicted in tourist ads and plunges you into the fear and horror that has come to define daily life in Brazil’s largest city. Sao Paulo is a city (the third largest in the world) where the least fortunate citizens regularly emerge from the slums to exact revenge on the corrupt politicians and wealthy industrialists who make their fortunes off the backs of the poor by kidnapping their wives and children and demanding enormous ransoms for their return. As the film’s tag line puts it: “When the rich steal from the poor the poor steal the rich.”
Kohn and his crew spent 5 years assembling an amazing cast of characters to depict Sao Paolo’s surreal food chain: the former head of the nation’s Senate who has been convicted of stealing millions from a government program meant to improve life in Brazil’s most remote Amazon villages but was nonetheless reelected by those districts. The wealthy manager of an industrial frog farm set up to launder the money stolen from the government program. A kidnapper who supports his family of 10 by abducting rich teenagers and cutting off their ears to urge their parents to pay ransom demands… a plastic surgeon that has become famous for inventing a cosmetic approach to replace the ears of kidnap victims…. A successful businessman who lives in constant fear of being kidnapped and so has spent vast sums to armor his bulletproof car and learn defensive driving techniques – a big business sparked into life to respond to the kidnap culture, along with the sale of private helicopters so the super rich can take off from the roofs of their penthouses and avoid street traffic, and microchipping, which enables tracking in the advent of a kidnapping.

Most unforgettable is the young woman nabbed outside a nightclub who describes how a young kidnapper practically passed out while cutting through the cartilage of her ear and how Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds, was playing on TV while they performed this butchery. That night, she dreamed that birds were picking at her ear. YIKES! I dare Wes Craven to equal that horror scene or the image of small kids playing in the slums, acting out kidnappings and stick-ups, instead of playing soccer.

Jason Kohn is a protégée of Errol Morris, whose imaginative touch has stretched the boundary of documentary filmmaking. Kohn has a gift for intrepid reporting, ambush tactics (like a sly young Mike Wallace!) when necessary, and vivid imagery. If the scenes of frog farm produce digesting each other to symbolize the revolting way human beings feed off each other are a trifle heavy handed, you won’t be forgetting them anytime soon either.

Manda Bala, which opens Friday, August 17th at The Angelica Theater, got me so interested in life in Brazil, that I went over to the Film Forum to check out LOVE FOR SALE, a haunting drama about a vibrant young woman who heads for Sao Paulo to seek her fortune, then slinks back to Iguatu, the desert wasteland that is her hometown.

HERMILDA GUEDES as Hermila (foreground) and GEORGINA CASTRO (background) as her friend Georgina, as seen in LOVE FOR SALE.

I didn’t see Karim Ainouz’s first film, Madame Sata, which Film Forum premiered in 2003, but if there’s any justice in this world, this film will definitely launch the career of a major new director. With a complete economy of images and a minimum of dialogue, we get the whole picture within the first few frames. We meet Hermila in a home movie, carefree, radiantly happy, and in love. Then we cut to a close up of the still beautiful but somewhat drawn girl bumping along a dusty road on a crowded bus. The camera slides over to reveal a baby in her lap.

Hermila’s Aunt Maria and grandmother take her and her infant son in and a temporary situation becomes permanent after several weeks of public humiliation as the whole town watches her calling again and again from the only public phone and waiting in vain at the gas station for her 20-year-old husband to join her from Sao Paulo.

Using a combination of non professionals and theater actors in the main roles, Ainouz and his wonderful cinematographer, Walter Carvalho, capture the details of life in “nowheresville Northeastern Brazil” perfectly—Hermila leaning against the open fridge at her granny’s house to cool off, sucking on a piece of ice. The truck stop, the open air market, the sidewalk restaurant, the guys blowing up dust on the main drag with their scooters, and the disco. The camera loves Hermila Guedes, the beautiful lead actress, who is deeply affecting as she grimly washes cars, pumps gas, cleans motel rooms and goes back to the kind but passive loser she thought she had left behind as ancient history. We watch her growing more wan and bitterer everyday until she challenges her life sentence and plots her escape from Iguatu with an enterprising plan that shocks the whole town.

I loved LOVE FOR SALE. Go see it. You will too.