×

Brazil’s Oscar Foreign Language Entry Whispers of Racism

Kleber Mendonca Filho’s "Neighboring Sounds" considers nation’s everyday class prejudices

Tucked among the 76 submissions competing for this year’s Oscar foreign-language prize is a film quite unlike any that has previously represented Brazil, whose cinematic output has been more directly associated with flashy, slum-set pics like “City of God” and the high-energy “Elite Squad” series.

Kleber Mendonca Filho’s “Neighboring Sounds,” by contrast, unfolds almost entirely on a residential block in the city of Recife — the same street where the filmmaker lives. Taking place in a world that everyday Brazilians might recognize, “Sounds” reveals the unspoken fear wealthier locals feel toward their neighbors, which drives them into private apartments high above the streets, and the ambiguous threat posed by the lower classes.
According to Mendonca (in Portuguese, “filho” means “son,” similar to “junior”), Brazilians live by a form of nonconfrontational racism — always present, but seldom acknowledged.

What makes “Sounds” so potent is the way it dares to examine these prejudices without identifying them outright, relying on audiences to recognize the phenomenon.

“I actually made it a point with the actors and my colleagues never to use the word ‘racism’ in the film, so we would be on the same realistic ground as Brazilian society, which doesn’t see itself as racist but practices racism every day,” explains Mendonca, who was heavily influenced by such American films as “Poltergeist,” “E.T.” and “Halloween,” in which fantastic things unfold within seemingly normal suburban environments.

“I thought it would be interesting to make a film that takes place in kitchens and living rooms, but to shoot it with the feel of 1970s Panavision, knowing that would create this tension between what you see and the situations being depicted,” explains Mendonca, who explored many of the same themes in previous short films. “If you watch all of them, you end up with ‘Neighboring Sounds,’ which is kind of embarrassing,” the director says, though he has hardly exhausted all he has to say in his first narrative feature.

In addition to two Brazil-based scripts he is developing, Mendonca stumbled across a project called “The Crew” after meeting screenwriter Mark Peploe on a jury at Locarno.

Highly impressed with “Neighboring Sounds,” Peploe (who penned Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and won an adapted screenplay Oscar for co-writing “The Last Emperor” with Bernardo Bertolucci) asked Mendonca if he would consider reading a script Peploe himself had written. “It’s adapted from something that Michelangelo and I worked on together for a number of years,” Peploe related.

According to Mendonca, the incredible response that accompanied “Neighboring Sounds” has brought a pressure he didn’t feel when making his debut. “What is very disturbing is the expectations people have about my next film,” he says. “I feel like making ‘Porky’s II’ just to say, ‘Leave me alone.’”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • La Rouei

    Lumiere Festival to Premiere Epic Restoration of 'La Roue'

    LYON, France  —  This coming Saturday and Sunday, the Lumière Festival will turn back the clock nearly one hundred years as the festival premieres a new completed reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1923 masterpiece “La Roue” (“The Wheel”) that restores the classic to its original 7.5 hour length. Consisting of a prologue and four movements, “La [...]

  • Lina Wertmuller portrait

    Lina Wertmuller’s Exceptional Career Revisited

    In the still American-led realm of the Academy Awards, it’s unusual for the helmer of a film not in the English language to score a Best Director nomination. It’s far rarer still, meanwhile, for a woman to be nominated in the category at all: just five have done so in 91 years. Only one director, [...]

  • Fifth Seal

    Lumière Festival Honors Hungary, Screens Classics ‘Women,’ ‘The Fifth Seal’

    For the fifth year running, Lyon’s Lumière Festival will honor Hungarian cinema and invite guests of the Hungarian National Film Fund to present two classic Hungarian films from important national filmmakers, Márta Mészáros’ “Ők ketten” (“Women”) and Zoltán Fábri’s “Fifth Seal.” Both films will be presented by Lumière Festival special guest Marina Vlady on Oct [...]

  • Godzilla

    Criterion Collection President Peter Becker on Storytelling, Bergman vs Godzilla, B-movies

    LYON, France  —  The Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) kicked off on Tuesday in Lyon, France, with a keynote address by Criterion Collection President Peter Becker. The exec discussed the company’s storied history and evolution over the decades into a leading publisher of classic and contemporary films from around the world in high-quality [...]

  • Manuel Chiche

    Boutique Distributor Manuel Chiche Offers A State of The Industry

    LYON, France  — Manuel Chiche is riding high. Since June, his boutique distribution outlet The Jokers set admission records with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” selling nearly 1.7 million tickets in France and still going strong as the film heads into its 19th week in theaters. Indeed, “Parasite” is now the second most successful Palme d’Or winner of [...]

  • Toni

    Italy’s L'Immagine Ritrovata Expected to Take Over France’s Eclair Cinema

    LYON, France  —  Leading Italian restoration company L’Immagine Ritrovata’s acquisition of renowned film lab Eclair Cinéma, announced last month, is expected to be approved by the French Commercial Court of Nanterre at the end of November or beginning of December, according to a source familiar with the deal. L’Immagine Ritrovata’s French subsidiary, L’Image Retrouvée, last [...]

  • Jay and Silent Bob Reboot

    Film Review: 'Jay and Silent Bob Reboot'

    In a film culture overrun by Marvel epics, wild-stunt action flicks, and other grandiose juvenilia, it is often said that the mid-budget, script-driven movie for adults is becoming a thing of the past. But don’t tell that to Kevin Smith, whose “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot,” a shaggy antic throwaway that premiered Tuesday in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content