Written and Directed By: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Gustavo Jahn, W. J. Sohla, Irandhir Santos, Irma Brown, Yuri Holanda
Directors of Photography: Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu, Editor: Kleber Mendonça Mendonça and João Maria, Art Direction: Juliano Dornelles, Original Music: DJ Dolores
True but minor story. The other week, a woman knocked on the door to my apartment. I hesitantly answered it. She asked me if I knew when my neighbors would be back, the individuals who lived in the apartment right across from me. Not only did I have no idea when they would back, I had no idea who they even were. I had seen them maybe once or twice before—an elderly couple—but had no idea who they were or what they did. Nor have I known any of my neighbors in New York for that matter.
So part of the shock of Neighboring Sounds, a fantastic and audacious new film from Brazil, is its exposure to a world where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, even if they don’t know who they are. Written and directed by a new filmmaker named Kleber Mendonça Filho (tough to pronounce, but will surely be hard to forget), the film is set on a single block in Recife, a fairly calm city in Brazil. We are miles from the slums that have popularized most Brazilian cinema that reaches our shores. The block is mostly middle class, with one large landowner living at the top of the block’s high-rises. And within the block is a cacophony of windows and doors, all letting people spy on each other.
Neighboring Sounds doesn’t necessarily marry itself to a narrative; it pieces itself together like a Robert Altman film. There’s a number of narratives, all taking place on different levels of the various buildings. One woman can’t stand the barking of a dog late at night across the alleyway. The grandson of the landowner, João, attempts to balance his job as a real estate agent and a beautiful woman who comes into his life, as well as his mischievous cousin. A neighborhood security team is hired to watch things go bump at the night, but the danger seems more metaphorical than literal.
What Neighboring Sounds accomplishes, like Altman’s Nashville, is a slice of life into a class and socio-economic world. The film’s architecture—specifically how we learn who lives across from who and how far high up they are in the towers, allows us to understand their class relation to each other. There’s some resentment between the rich and the poor, but this isn’t an “Occupy Recife” film as much as it is one dissecting the way people try and box themselves. When you can literally see what others have, those items become much more desirable. The titular sounds becomes on of Mendonça’s signature traits. We constantly hear the bustle and sounds of the street, even within the enclosed rooms. He makes us keenly aware of these sounds, sometimes providing intense booms on the soundtrack, almost as if a reminder if we don’t see someone, then we, the voyeurs, are still watching.
The plots sadly don’t all coalesce by the end—one particular twist at the end seems almost out of left field for a film that feels so tightly controlled—but Mendonça slowly builds the dread and tension of a block that seems like it could break out into revolution at any point. Revolution toward what? I don’t exactly know, nor does the film seem compelled to really answer that question. But as the block changes from the small homes (only one remains) to the large scale towers, you see it in Mendonça’s camera as these people become more frustrated with their new proximity to each other. His frames are neatly composed, distanced without necessary feeling cold (He might be compared in framing to directors like Giorgos Lanthimos or Gerardo Naranjo). And he gets at least two good scares in that are very effective.
Given the popularity of films about cops and gangsters, the refreshing view of Brazil in Neighboring Sounds makes it a pure delight, but not one limited by its own culture. It’s embrace of deadpan humor, quiet poignancy, and a few scares may feel particularly relevant to the country’s changing status in the world, but its exposure of the human soul could happen in any city around the world. We’re all voyeurs, but that also makes us victims of voyeurism.