Kidnapping, corruption and frog farming find common ground in Manda Bala, the assured first film from Jason Kohn. The documentary's nominal subject is the kidnapping epidemic in Brazil's major cities, particularly So Paulo, where a handful of thriving industries cater to potential and actual victims. Bulletproofing cars is big business, and the city has the world's largest private helicopter fleet to help the wealthy avoid street-level attacks. Kohn interviews a surgeon who specializes in reconstructing ears, which kidnappers frequently sever as an inducement to the victim's families.
The movie's most chilling sequence is an interview with a ski-masked kidnapper calling himself Magrinho, who hints in a cold, almost bemused tone at the number of people he's killed. "Kidnapping works just like a company," he says. "You need structure, employees." With a large number of children depending on his financial support, he shows no remorse for his crimes.
Magrinho is not the movie's most nefarious villain. That honor belongs to Jader Barbalho, a high-ranking politician whom the movie accuses of siphoning millions of dollars out of economic reconstruction programs in Brazil's Amazon region, where many of the So Paulo kidnappers are thought to hail from.
The massive frog farm located in the Para province has a place in the story, as an alleged money-laundering front for Barbalho's ill-gotten gains. But Kohn is clearly more enamored of it as a metaphor. He crams the film with shots of frog pools stretching for what seems like miles, and of the factory floor where they are turned into packaged food. Among the movie's most striking images is that of a large frog swallowing a slightly smaller one whole, the little frog's wriggling legs disappearing into its gaping mouth.
Manda Bala is sometimes more conceptually bold than it has the goods to back up. For all the accusations it lobs at Barbalho, it presents little proof, building up to a shifty interview in which he dodges all the relevant questions. It's often stunning to look at, especially when it's contrasting the gleaming heights of central So Paulo with the unbelievable squalor of the slums that sprawl for miles around. But the movie's reality never quite strikes home the way its metaphors do. It's a frog-eat-frog world.