Offering a street-level view of Brazilian corruption, Manda Bala is flashy, fascinating, and occasionally exploitative documentary. An opening title boasts that the film “cannot be shown in Brazil,” but the movie—which took the top documentary prize at Sundance this year—would be unwelcome everywhere that staid, detached docs rule. Like City of God, the breathless fictional treatment of Brazilian drug dealing and gang wars that was criticized in some quarters for being overly frisky, director Jason Kohn’s film seems to enjoy its subject a little too much.

The principals include a kidnap victim, a plastic surgeon, several prosecutors, a massively unscrupulous Amazonian politician, a businessman who’s constantly maneuvering to avoid robbery or worse, and a whole mess of frogs. Connected as much by the editing scheme as by logic, these characters are employed to represent a country where rampant lawlessness has created markets for bulletproof cars, reconstructed ears, and microchips to monitor potential abductees. The film is mostly concerned with São Paulo, whose population of 10 million is largely destitute but includes a wealthy class that’s treated like a cash machine by thieves and kidnappers. This, as economists might say, distorts the market. Between trips to his evasive-driving class, the businessman notes that his thug-resistant cars are worth more than his home.

On average, one person is kidnapped for money every day in São Paulo. As gruesome low-def ransom videos show, ears and fingers are often severed and sent to the people expected to make the payoff. That provides lots of work for a plastic surgeon who pioneered a new technique for remaking ears from rib cartilage. (And, of course, the movie shows how this bloody transformation is done.) Meanwhile, a farmer raises frogs by the thousands in an operation not unlike the one that Jáder Barbalho, the movie’s most prominent villain, used to launder some of the $2 billion he and his cronies swindled from an Amazon development fund. And a ski-masked man faces the camera and explains how he supports his family with the “hard work” of kidnapping. The young slum-dweller has nine children, with another on the way, which he proclaims are “the future of Brazil.” In other words, the country’s future will be a lot like its recent past.

Little in Manda Bala (Portuguese for “send a bullet”) will surprise viewers who’ve seen City of God or such other recent Brazilian films as Central Station, Bus 174, and Carandiru. But the movie arranges its various storylines into a dynamic, evocative fugue. Kohn emulates the showy style of Errol Morris, while borrowing Shoah director Claude Lanzmann’s gambit of presenting interviews in their native language, followed by live translation. Despite this delaying tactic, the film is mainly fast-paced and often lurid, with unflinching looks at surgical procedures and frog cannibalism. To add the sense of disorientation, the mayhem is set to a soundtrack that features the easygoing sounds of Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, and Os Mutantes. Their music offers a subtle counterpoint, suggesting that somewhere there’s a Brazil that’s gentle and sophisticated—if only in the imagination.States of Shock

Into the Wild’s rural Alaska is liberating, while Manda Bala’s São Paulo is purely lawless.

As he rambles from his Annandale, Va., home northwest to Alaska, the protagonist of Into the Wild spreads happiness and maintains his big-grinned equanimity. Yet there are two reasons to suspect that Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) will not come to a good end. One is that the film is adapted from Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book, whose conclusion is not a secret; the other is that it was written and directed by Sean Penn, who showed an affinity for men who crash and burn in the three previous features he’s directed. Yet this tale is something of a switch for Penn, and it has a sense of acceptance and possibility that makes it his most satisfying work.

True to Chris’ adolescent romanticism, Into the Wild begins with a nature-struck verse from Lord Byron and the first burblings of an earnest art-folk score (by Michael Brook, Eddie Vedder, and Kaki King). Hopping between the past and the more recent past, the opening scenes sketch the young man’s pre-nomadic life while depicting his arrival at an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, where he’ll settle down after some two years on the road. The dutiful son of bickering, overpowering parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), Chris has done his time at Emory University and gotten a degree. The rest of dad’s plans for him, however, are to be shelved. Without even informing his beloved little sister, Carine (Jena Malone), Chris gives away his remaining money and hitchhikes west. He is now, he declares, Alexander Supertramp. (Cue Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country,” one of the most overused soundtrack ditties of the last 40 years.)

Chris spends a long season alone in Alaska, with voiceover of his letters, passages from Tolstoy, and hand-carved diary entries substituting for dialogue. Into the Wild lacks the imaginary friendships with local fauna that characterize such alone-in-the-wilderness chronicles as Grizzly Man and Never Cry Wolf, but the movie doesn’t attempt to conjure the experience of a solitary existence. Instead, it flashes back regularly to Chris’ pre-Alaska encounters, which largely revolve around surrogate families. Peripatetic hippie couple Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) take in the drifter. An earthy South Dakota grain dealer (Vince Vaughn) briefly becomes the big brother Chris might have had. And a lonely California desert-dweller (Hal Holbrook) auditions for the role of honorary grandpa. Everyone the wanderer meets is improved by the contact, a notion that’s even more romantic than Chris’ conception of the wilderness.

“You’re not Jesus, are you?” Rainey asks Chris, and Penn is almost willing to make that claim. If the young traveler is only a minor-league savior, he’s accorded a glow worthy of Renaissance religious canvases. What’s least believable is that Chris has no appetites save for friendship and adventure. He makes no major forays into drugs and booze, and he declines to sleep with a teenage girl (underage temptress Kristen Stewart) who couldn’t advertise her availability any more openly. (In place of hot sex, he entices her to join him for a tepid duet of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”) Into the Wild refuses to acknowledge that healthy 22-year-old guys do not live by white-water kayaking alone.

Remarkably, however, Hirsch makes the sainted Chris believable and sympathetic. The baby-faced actor, who conveyed little more than callowness in such films as The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and The Emperor’s Club, benefits from a few added years, scraggly facial hair, and Penn’s direction. Hirsch leads a cast that’s both grounded and light on its feet, a description that can be applied to the film itself. Penn’s empathy with Chris is evident, yet the director concentrates not on the kid’s fate but on his expansive character. For the first time, Penn has made a movie that sees alpha-male obsessiveness as a path to liberation rather than doom. Reasonable people may debate the meaning of Christopher McCandless’ saga, but Into the Wild makes a credible and even joyous case that the young explorer gained more than he lost.

Offering a street-level view of Brazilian corruption, Manda Bala is flashy, fascinating, and occasionally exploitative documentary. An opening title boasts that the film “cannot be shown in Brazil,” but the movie—which took the top documentary prize at Sundance this year—would be unwelcome everywhere that staid, detached docs rule. Like City of God, the breathless fictional treatment of Brazilian drug dealing and gang wars that was criticized in some quarters for being overly frisky, director Jason Kohn’s film seems to enjoy its subject a little too much.

The principals include a kidnap victim, a plastic surgeon, several prosecutors, a massively unscrupulous Amazonian politician, a businessman who’s constantly maneuvering to avoid robbery or worse, and a whole mess of frogs. Connected as much by the editing scheme as by logic, these characters are employed to represent a country where rampant lawlessness has created markets for bulletproof cars, reconstructed ears, and microchips to monitor potential abductees. The film is mostly concerned with São Paulo, whose population of 10 million is largely destitute but includes a wealthy class that’s treated like a cash machine by thieves and kidnappers. This, as economists might say, distorts the market. Between trips to his evasive-driving class, the businessman notes that his thug-resistant cars are worth more than his home.

On average, one person is kidnapped for money every day in São Paulo. As gruesome low-def ransom videos show, ears and fingers are often severed and sent to the people expected to make the payoff. That provides lots of work for a plastic surgeon who pioneered a new technique for remaking ears from rib cartilage. (And of course the movie shows how this bloody transformation is done.) Meanwhile, a farmer raises frogs by the thousands in an operation not unlike the one that Jáder Barbalho, the movie’s most prominent villain, used to launder some of the $2 billion he and his cronies swindled from an Amazon development fund. And a ski-masked man faces the camera and explains how he supports his family with the “hard work” of kidnapping. The young slum-dweller has nine children, with another on the way, which he proclaims are “the future of Brazil.” In other words, the country’s future will be a lot like its recent past.

Little in Manda Bala (Portuguese for “send a bullet”) will surprise viewers who’ve seen City of God or such other recent Brazilian films as Central Station, Bus 174, and Carandiru. But the movie arranges its various storylines into a dynamic, evocative fugue. Kohn emulates the showy style of Errol Morris, while borrowing Shoah director Claude Lanzmann’s gambit of presenting interviews in their native language, followed by live translation. Despite this delaying tactic, the film is mainly fast-paced and often lurid, with unflinching looks at surgical procedures and frog cannibalism. To add the sense of disorientation, the mayhem is set to a soundtrack that features the easygoing sounds of Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, and Os Mutantes. Their music offers a subtle counterpoint, suggesting that somewhere there’s a Brazil that’s gentle and sophisticated—if only in the imagination.CP