PRINT Summer 2012


Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds

Kleber Mendonça Filho, O som ao redor (Neighboring Sounds), 2012, still from a color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes. João (Gustavo Jahn) and Sophia (Irma Brown).

“THIS IS NO FAVELA, MAN,” a late-adolescent scion snarls to a thirtyish security guard in Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s stunning Neighboring Sounds. Though there are no shacks or shanties in this ambitious debut feature, class and racial tensions and a generalized paranoia inform, however subtly, every interaction—the resentments and misunderstandings reverberating as a low-level thrum, much like the barely perceptible sounds that subliminally score the film. Set in a well-off oceanfront neighborhood in Recife, a city of four million in northeastern Brazil—where the director himself, a former film critic, lives—Neighboring Sounds burrows deep to expose the unarticulated though ever-present sense of dread gripping its bourgeois characters. Like the prosperous Recife residents living in free-floating fear of invasion and assault, the viewer is also guarded, kept slightly off balance and bracing for violence—or some kind of eruption—that never quite comes to pass. Or does it?

Neighboring Sounds, a mosaic of multigenerational characters, primes us immediately for a return of the repressed—or rather, the oppressed. The film opens with several unidentified black-and-white photos of poor villagers and farmers taken several decades ago, a slide show accompanied, in one of the few instances of nondiegetic sound, by Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Colombier’s trippy, percussive instrumental “Cadavres en série.” This brief look back segues swiftly into the present, by way of a fluid tracking shot that trails a boy on a bike and a girl on Rollerblades as they wheel through the parking lot of a tower block. The car park opens onto a small, busy playground where kids are being tended to by uniformed nannies; a trio of tykes appear captivated, looking down some dozen feet below at a man installing security bars on a window, steel rods that frequently dominate the masterful wide-screen compositions in Neighboring Sounds. But in the moments before we see what the children see, the harsh whirring of the worker’s power tool grows continuously louder, a familiar if unplaceable and vaguely menacing sound—one of many that uncannily capture the eeriness of even the most banal ambient noise, such as that of a car slowly passing late at night or the drone of a washing machine. (Mendonça created the superbly unsettling sound design with Pablo Lamar.)

That high-rise could be the same one João (Gustavo Jahn) lives in—or one of the other properties owned by his grandfather, Francisco (W. J. Solha), the white-haired elder statesman of the block who made his fortune from the sugar mill he still owns in a smaller town inland. The construction of these soaring edifices, which João leases out, is yet another instance of the past being razed (only to be raised later). “The house you lived in is about to be demolished,” João tells his girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), who resided on his street twenty years ago. Her old room, which the couple visits, still bears a few of her personal touches, soon to be wiped out for good.

Like many of the kids on the playground in the opening scene, Francisco and his grandson are cared for by darker-skinned domestics, their master-servant dynamic illuminating what Mendonça called, in a recent interview in Cinema Scope, his country’s “cordial racism,” which comes from “everything that’s mixed into being Brazilian—from the natives, Africans, from the Europeans, Catholicism, etc.” These paler characters exhibit vastly different levels of affability when interacting with the help: João is kind and affectionate, if slightly patronizing, to his maid, while Francisco addresses the black member of a small security detail that has come to ask for his approval to safeguard the area as “boy.”

Perversely, the arrival of this street patrol makes the residents, who talk about stolen car stereos more often than they discuss the weather, even more fearful of and agitated by life outside. Bia (Maeve Jinkings), whose cozier, single-family home still appears as fortresslike as the icy, gated condos in the towers, becomes increasingly exasperated by the barking of the Weimaraner next door; her daughter wakes from a nightmare in which one obscured body after another vaults over a security gate, soon forming a terrifying swarm in the courtyard.

The figures in the young girl’s dream, like the subjects in the opening photos, are anonymous yet totemic: nameless, potent symbols in the nation’s collective unconscious. The past will come back to haunt the film’s most powerful character—a confrontation that alludes to but never specifies a violent act and itself unfolds with the narrative gaps common in nightmares. What Mendonça demonstrates so potently is the psychic toll exacted by the elite’s refusal to directly address Brazil’s pervasive class imbalances, as the affluent immure themselves in well-appointed spaces tricked out with surveillance cameras. Yet into this toxic silence seeps a bizarre city symphony, a cacophony of real and imagined noises, of real and imagined perils.

Neighboring Sounds opens in select cities in late summer and early fall.

Melissa Anderson is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.