Directed by: Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Written by: Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Starring: Irma Brown (Sofia), Sebastião Formiga (Claudio), Gustavo Jahn (João), Maeve Jinkings (Bia), Dida Maia (Ricardo), Irandhir Santos (Clodoaldo), W.J. Solha (Francisco), Lula Terra (Anco), Yuri Holanda (Dinho), Clébia Souza (Luciene).
The past haunts the present in subtle, yet powerful, ways in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s brilliant debut film Neighbouring Sounds. The film opens with old photos of slaves on Brazil’s sugar plantation, before flashing forward to present day Recife, a town on the Brazilian coast where the upper, middle and lower class live side-by-side, yet worlds apart. If you can afford to, you lock yourself behind gates and walls, as the residents of this small neighbourhood are paranoid of the people around them that they do not know. This paranoia seems unfounded, as we don’t see much crime on the streets – and what we do see is committed by the spoiled grandson of area’s richest resident Francisco (W.J. Solha) – who made his money on the sugar plantations. He owns much of the area, but while his is the fanciest house in the area, with the most protection, he is also the only one who feels safe enough to leave his house in the middle of the night – to walk down to the beach and go swimming in the Ocean, despite signs warning of sharks.
The film has a large structure, layering story upon story much the same way Robert Altman did in films like Nashville or Short Cuts. Gradually, characters begin to emerge. Joao (Gustabo Jahn), another grandson of Francisco, who has a job showing condo in his grandfather’s building – condos where maid quarters are expected. He hates his job, but does it anyway. He has started seeing Sofia (Irma Brown), who used to live in the area and wants to see her former house before it’s torn down to make way for even more condos. There is Bia (Maeve Jinkings), a bored housewife, who escapes through pot and an unbalanced washing machine. She is fighting a private war with the barking dog next door, and gets into a fight with her sister – they are both getting a new TV, and Bia’s is bigger. There is Dinho (Yuri Holanda), the delinquent car radio thief, who as the grandson of Francisco, has no need to steal people’s radios, except that he wants to.
The common thread running through the movie is Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), who shows up one day and gets all the residents to agree to pay a monthly fee for him and his men to patrol the streets at night to keep everything safe. This basically involves them sitting under a tarp, talking to each other on their walkie-talkies. Clodoaldo has secrets as well, as everyone in the neighbourhood does, but is also the only character who comes into contact with everyone else – from the upper class of Francisco and Joao, to the middle class Bia, to the lower class maids and doormen the other forget about, unless it’s to complain about them.
Neighbouring Sounds is a slow burn of a movie. When the film begins, you think it may just be a slice of life film about this neighbourhood. And yet, fairly early on, the sense of mounting dread begins. You know from the start that something darker is lurking beneath the surface here, you just cannot quite figure out what it is. None of the characters are what you would call wholly good or wholly bad. Joao seems like a nice guy – in one of the film’s best scenes, he’s the only one who argues on behalf of a doorman the rest of the condo residents want to fire for sleeping on the job – which would mean the longtime employee could be gotten rid of with no severance package. In this scene it becomes clear that resentment is not just between the different classes, but between everyone – no one trusts their neighbours. But Joao also puts his longtime maid out to pasture, replacing her with her dour daughter, even though she doesn’t want to retire, and at only 60, doesn’t really need to. On the surface he seems nice – he seems to have some guilt about his family’s wealth and wants to be seen as just another resident of the street, but his sense of entitlement gradually starts to show.
The mounting dread is aided by the intricate sound design of the movie, where everything is ramped up just a little beyond its normal volume – footsteps on the ceiling above you can sound as ominous as anything else in this movie. And gradually, a few bizarre things happen to make you wonder just what precisely is going on.
Neighbouring Sounds is a remarkable debut film for Kleber Mendonça Filho. Like many first time directors, he picked an ambitious project – many characters, interlocking stories, subtle shifts in tone, gradually ratcheting up the tension – but unlike many directors he has the skill to pull it off. The movie ends with two scenes in which we see the past coming back to haunt one character, and then that same past seemingly about to repeat itself with another character. All over a fence. Or a dog.