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Though not quite a nail-biter, there is something eerie and unsettling about Neighbouring Sounds, the debut feature film from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Divided into three parts, Neighbouring Sounds examines the intersecting lives of the residents of a middle class neighbourhood in Recife, Brazil’s fifth-largest city. The film takes place almost entirely within a single block of the neighbourhood, giving a theatrical air to Neighbouring Sounds’ more microscopic filmic qualities. The audience sees snapshots of the neighbourhood as a whole, but also of each of the residents’ private lives behind the thick security bars that shield their windows.
Much of the neighbourhood is owned by the wealthy Francisco (W J Solha), whose recalcitrant grandson Dinho (Yuri Holanda) is suspected to have stolen a CD player from his other grandson João’s (Gustavo Jahn) new girlfriend’s car. When a suspicious security team, led by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), enters the neighbourhood and convinces residents of the need for their services, most are only mildly sceptical of their intentions – and the security team swiftly makes itself at home under a gazebo in the street. Filho’s thoughtful casting of the security guards and the tense soundtrack both work to ensure that the audience – much like the locals in the film – are never fully at ease, despite the security presence (if anything, their existence heightens the foreboding sense that something’s amiss in the neighbourhood).
Episodic and often dreamlike in style, the film flits from subplot to subplot, following the love life of João and the ennui of housewife Bia (Maeve Jinkings), among others. The opening of the film sees João and his new lover sleeping naked on a couch amidst a table full of empty beer bottles, with the housekeeper and her children confined to the kitchen upon entering the scene. Inside Bia’s home, where most of her scenes take place, the audience peers in on her most private moments, which see her secretly smoking marijuana into a vacuum cleaner and pleasuring herself on a convulsing washing machine. Darkly comedic and absurd moments like these, as well as Bia’s farcical attempts to silence her neighbour’s barking dog, artfully counterbalance the tense mood of the film.
True to its name, the sound design of Neighbouring Sounds is largely responsible for the film’s grave undertones. A sparse and sinister musical score coupled with a series of intermittent domiciliary noises comprise the soundtrack to the film: a dog barking, a vacuum cleaner humming, cars driving by and footsteps pattering along floorboards and up stairs. But the most psychologically affecting parts of the film concern what isn’t there – the unsettling silences reflecting the lingering anxiety of the residents. No crime is actually witnessed in Neighbouring Sounds, yet the sound design quite effectively scaremongers the viewer – much like the residents themselves – into focusing on the possibilities of crime and corruption.
While perhaps a little more drawn out than necessary, Neighbouring Sounds provides a stimulating glimpse into a side of urban Brazil not often enough explored in the Brazilian films that make it to Australia. Filho manages to address some decidedly heavy themes (social hierarchy, race and class tensions, consumerism and Brazil’s dictatorial history) with refreshing subtlety, humour and restraint, leaving much of the film’s long-awaited climax to the imagination of the viewer.
Neighbouring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho, FiGa Films, 2012, 131 minutes. Portuguese with English subtitles. This film was screened at Melbourne International Film Festival (2-19 August) as part of the ‘Through the Labyrinth: New Latin American Cinema’ program.
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