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.’”

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