May. 07, 2008 - Issue #655: Trash Talk
From Canada to Brazil, the detective turns to crime
Director-producer Jason Kohn takes a distinctive approach to this chronicle of kidnappings in Brazil—call it the obsessively tangential drama-documentary. He lands halfway along a sideroad—the frog farm, ear reconstruction surgery—that seems to be only distantly linked to the storyline, but then doggedly follows the subplot until it angles back to the main arc. The frog farm, for instance, is part of a massive corruption scandal which the film argues is symptomatic of a broken political system that’s only further exploited and abandoned the poor, leading some to move beyond mere theft and bank robberies to kidnapping the rich for ransom.
But Kohn lingers on the frog farm until it takes on its own odd beauty: tadpoles grow up, crowd their lilypadded homes, then get scooped by the dozens into buckets, put on hooks, beheaded, skinned and deep-fried. If Kohn is suggesting an analogy with teeming Sao Paolo (pop 20 million) and how life can be so cheaply reduced to murder-for-profit (including cutting off and sending body parts, like ears, as proof that a family member is captive), he’s smart enough to never make the parallel explicit.
Manda Bala also refuses to pin the blame on the criminal poor or their hostages from the elite. Instead it targets the unbelievably corrupt politicians, using Jáder Barbalho as an example—the powerful governor and congressman from Belém was the head of a government program meant to help the poor of Amazonia but instead used to filch and launder at least $2 billion.
Kohn’s tangential approach builds tension—though some scenes are a touch indulgent and over-long (extended scenes, along with a director’s commentary, are the disc’s bonus features). And the elegant, bright camerawork, along with the jaunty Brazilian musical score, builds a fitting sense of the surreal. Hostage-takings have spun off car-bulletproofing, private helicopter suppliers, and even subdermal microchipping into major industries. “Mr M,” a businessman with a lot of net worth sealed up in armoured cars, ends up feeling less safe after taking a course on avoiding drive-by kidnappings; Barbalho talks of fighting for the poor; a masked kidnapper says he uses some of his cut of the ransoms to help his slum neighbourhood, paying for medicine or a new sewage system.
Between these surreal lines, much is said about Brazil’s culture of corruption with “impunity,” from its beginnings as a colony exploited and extorted by the Portuguese to Sao Paolo’s siphoning of people and money from the poor northeast. And Kohn’s intriguing approach is, like the web of corruption that Manda Bala can only hint at, more complex than it seems. Those aerial shots of Sao Paulo, for instance, work artistically, practically and metaphorically—they’re beautifully strange overviews of a crowded city, its helicopter-padded skyscrapers towering above the slums and protecting the exploiting rich from the threatening poor, and the shots also suggest the corruption and insulation at the highest levels that has only deepened the class divide.
Compared with the real-life backroom deals and money laundering in Brazil, a pot kingpin in Vancouver sounds like petty, small-time Canadian drama. But Intelligence (Acorn) is the best TV made in this country, at least for two seasons—unable to see the forest of quality for the trees of ratings, CBC cancelled this politically astute, dramatically exhilarating show earlier this year.
Created by Chris Haddock (Da Vinci’s Inquest), the show’s first season has finally arrived on disc. (The behind-the-scenes special features are pretty disappointing, though.) The kingpin is Jimmy Reardon, played to the ragged edge by Ian Tracey. He hooks up with Organized Crime Unit boss Mary Spalding (Klea Scott) to avoid a drug charge by giving her what matters in this day and age—information, any inside dope on bigger fish that the national intelligence agency wants fried: weapons dealers, Chinese spies, Canadian businessmen secretly crossing the border in their trade allegiances, and other major shady dealers. Bouncing from Jimmy’s world on the streets to Mary’s office at the heart of a wire-tapped web of international intrigue, Intelligence buzzes with twists and turns. The first season ends on the edge of a cliff (actually, a dive in Seattle).
The show’s particular genius is its switching of sides. Jimmy becomes the sympathetic anti-hero who’s made a deal with the greater devil, an intelligence service that uses people for undercover information, tries to suppress the media, and has its own backstabbers. Ted Altman (Matt Frewer) is the silently sweating underling who’s gunning for Mary’s job. Scott is coolly sharp as this woman in a man’s world who always has to stay a step ahead if she wants the coveted top job at Vancouver’s CSIS offices. But Camille Sullivan tends to smuggle away every episode—she’s riveting as Jimmy’s ex-wife Francine, needy, strong, desperate and calculating by turns, a woman of fury both scorned and scorning. V
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