True to its spiritual roots in such shock-umentaries as SHOCKING ASIA and MONDO CANE, this far more responsible documentary about the dark side of Brazilian life first introduces itself as "The film that cannot be shown in Brazil," then kicks off with a bang: On a fragment of grainy black-and-white video, blindfolded woman is seen wearing a necklace made of hand grenades. Her captors threaten her life, her home and her children. While kidnapping has reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, it's just the tip of the criminal iceberg. Throughout his auspicious debut, U.S. filmmaker Jason Kohn reveals the extent to which crime has become part of everyday life there by focusing on the teeming city of San Paolo where the very rich and the very poor live drastically different lives in close proximity, where armed robberies are committed at traffic intersections in broad daylight and corruption infests the very centers of power.
According to Claudio Fonteles, Brazil's Attorney General, corruption is what connects all crimes, and that corruption is as old as the Portuguese colonists who conquered the region with the simple and less-than-noble aim of getting rich. According to Kohn's film, that kind of corruption has taken modern shape in Jader Barbalho, once a dirt-poor city councilman who has held nearly every elected office in Brazil outside of the presidency, and has become one of Brazil's richest and most powerful politicians -- allegedly by robbing the country blind. Barbalho put himself in charge of SUDAM, a huge government development program designed to help the poor of northern Brazil start their own business. Instead, Barbalho allegedly used the money -- an estimated $2 billion in all -- to create non-existent "ghost enterprises" and simply pocketed the funds. He's also accused of using $9 million of SUDAM's money to build a frog farm as a legitimate business through which he can launder the money he'd been embezzling from SUDAM. Barbalho briefly appears in the film to defend his reputation and deny the whole frog farm business (some of Kohn's most striking images come from a visit to the strange facility), but several other interviewees are on hand to disagree: Helbio Dias, a federal police marshal who's head of the SUDAM investigation; assistant attorney general Mario Lucio Avelar, whose investigation of corrupt government officials led to death threats and a solid year under police protection; and Paulo Lamarao, the only civil lawyer ever to take on Barbalho. Frustrated by what he calls Brazil's "culture of impunity," Lamarao vows never to rest until Barbalho is behind bars or has him killed. And he might not be joking.
The film's most interesting interviews, however, are with the perpetrators and victims of the kind of crimes that trickle down from such centralized corruption, crimes that are largely the result of the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots that programs like SUDAM are meant to close. Magrinho, a drug trafficker, bank robber, cop killer, skilled kidnapper and father of nine (with a tenth on the way) lives in the slums that surround the city and claims to use his ill-gotten gains to provide his neighbors with food, medicine and municipal works. In return, they protect him from the police. A San Paolo businessman who will only identify himself as "Mr. M" talks in detail about how he was robbed at gunpoint while stopped at a traffic light; he now drives around in one of three bulletproof cars (albeit one is a foolishly attention-grabbing Porsche 911 Turbo). Through an interpreter, a woman named Patricia relates how she was wooed by a secret admirer who later kidnapped her off a San Paolo street. Patricia was held for 16 days and had both ears cut off as an incentive to her family to pay her ransom. (A piece of one ear was sent to Patricia's father on Fathers' Day with a handwritten note: "Dad, I did not forget your present." The ear arrived with flowers.) The San Paolo police, meanwhile, are outnumbered and outgunned. In a city of 20 million plagued by daily kidnappings, there are only 80 officers currently assigned to the anti-kidnapping division, and the inability of the Brazilian government to provide adequate security has led to the rise of a number of new, no-doubt highly profitable businesses: car bulletproofing; private helicopters (it's far safer to travel above San Paolo than through it); instructional courses in how to avoid getting kidnapped while driving your bulletproof car; and plastic surgery. Ingenious surgeons like Dr. Juarez Avelar have perfected ways of reconstructing the ears of kidnapping victims using rib cartilage which Dr. Avelar is shown sculpting with impressive artistry. The procedure is shown in all its gruesome detail, and its sequences like this, along with footage of frog flaying, kidnapping victims (including a child) pleading for their lives, and an ear being severed from a weeping man -- all set to a percussive Brazilian soundtrack -- that give the film its mondo punch. Needless to say it's all quite effective, and makes for riveting viewing. (In English and Portuguese with English subtitles.)
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- Released: 2007
- Rating: NR
- Review: True to its spiritual roots in such shock-umentaries as SHOCKING ASIA and MONDO CANE, this far more responsible documentary about the dark side of Brazilian life first introduces itself as "The film that cannot be shown in Brazil," then kicks off with a ba… (more)