From the opening credits of “Neighboring Sounds,” when the usual end-roll cast list appears before the first scene, auds know Kleber Mendonca Filho is looking to upend expectations. Once the pic proper begins, it’s equally clear this exceptionally talented helmer understands exactly what he’s doing and why. Those familiar with his award-winning shorts will recognize certain themes and even scenes, but Filho hones his vision into a powerful yet subtle X-ray of contempo Brazilian society as seen on one upmarket street. Superbly constructed, skillfully acted and beautifully lensed, “Sounds” should have made a bigger noise at Rotterdam.
Notwithstanding a lone Fipresci prize following its premiere, the pic is certain to captivate fest programmers and attendees. Buyers should take a look, since this is one example of a Brazilian film that needn’t feature a lot of stomping around the favelas to stand strong in international arthouse markets.
The setting is the city of Recife, on a street near the sea where only two single-family houses remain amid a welter of concrete apartment buildings. Filho divides the film into three chapters of varying lengths, effortlessly weaving together his characters while slipping in small details that cumulatively speak of class, race and the nation’s uneasy past.
Beatriz (Maeve Jinkings) is seen almost always in her apartment, an airy setup with all the appurtenances of the middle class. She’s got a hard-working husband and two nice kids supplementing school hours with private lessons in English and Mandarin. Of course she has certain needs: She secretly smokes weed and uses the wildly spinning washing machine to get off (Filho first engaged with these ideas in his short “Eletrodomestica”).
Beatriz’s street is largely owned by Francisco (renaissance man W.J. Solha), a paterfamilias of the old school with deep ties to his estate in the countryside. Grandson Dinho (Yuri Holanda) is the bad boy of the family, but Francisco shields him, much to the annoyance of his other grandson, Joao (Gustavo Jahn), who suspects his first cousin of breaking into his new girlfriend’s car.
Just arrived on the street is a private security team captained by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), who convinces residents their services are needed. Viewers know the protection required is from inner, not outer demons, but then at the very end, Clodoaldo’s presence in that particular road becomes shockingly, unexpectedly clear.
That Filho can juggle so many important issues without being heavyhanded or dropping even one speaks volumes about his strengths as scripter, helmer and co-editor. “Neighboring Sounds” captures the very fabric of Brazilian society, whose seemingly porous hierarchies prove to be prohibitively rigid. It also catches the relationships between servants and employers, the subtleties of race, the perpetuation of privilege, the isolationism of consumerism, and then, in one breathtaking moment, effortlessly incorporates the legacy of Brazil’s dictatorship.
All this is achieved thanks to a remarkable editing job by Filho and Joao Maria, and expert lensing by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu. Visuals take full advantage of the widescreen, making the characters seem like figures trapped in a diorama where the street and the apartments are hermetic worlds. Tellingly, only Francisco, representative of old-guard power, freely negotiates outside the neighborhood, swimming one night in shark-infested waters and later relaxing in the colonial comforts of the family plantation. Beatriz is seen driving outside, but only Francisco and his kin believe they can treat the world as their oyster.
Camera angles as well as art direction convey the sense of homes as dwellings barred to keep the unknown out and residents in place, figuratively and literally. Yet even in these safe havens, uneasiness creeps in, whether from a dog’s constant barking or an invasion nightmare too frightening to contemplate. Tying it all up is a highly sophisticated use of music and sound.