Here's the first thing you should know about Neighboring Sounds: It's not about the favelas. The handful of film imports from Brazil that have connected with a stateside audience outside the festival circuit tend to center on the struggles of the poor and downtrodden as they confront the harsh realities of their working-class surroundings. (Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, alas, remains a distant memory.) It's safe to say that this recent arrival, which screens this weekend at the Bill Cosford Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque, is not that kind of movie
For one, the characters that populate writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho's keenly observed ensemble piece are, for the most part, pretty well off. The setting is a residential street in Recife, a coastal city on the country's northeastern tip and the capital of the state of Pernambuco. But even though they have no trouble making ends meet, these upper-middle-class residents' personal lives are in differing states of disarray. Homemaker Bia Linhares (Maeve Jinkings) has to deal with the constantly barking dog living next door, an incessant drone Mendonça Filho returns to several times throughout the film. How does she handle the pains of being in an unhappy marriage? Whenever she's not blowing marihuana smoke into her vacuum cleaner (we must, after all, keep appearances), Bia waits for her washing machine to reach its spin cycle to use the appliance as her own personal vibrator.
Claudio (Sebastião Formiga), the local realtor, is comparatively well adjusted. His family's filthy rich – his grandfather Francisco (W. J. Solha) owns half of this land – but he still makes a good living, and he's not going to let a minor detail like the fact that a woman jumped off a condo's balcony prevent him from closing the sale with a skeptical prospective buyer. It's a shame that Sofia (Irma Brown), the good looking former resident of this neighborhood who he started “dating,” got her car CD system stolen, quite possibly by his klepto cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda), who is mentioned in disparaging black-sheep terms more than he is actually seen onscreen. Claudio's retired dad confides in him that he occasionally sleeps with an unhappily married mother of two from time to time. Gee, I wonder who that could be.
And so on. Even though he flits from one household to another in deliberately haphazard fashion, Mendonça Filho is ultimately more interested in Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and Fernando (Nivaldo Nascimento), the two strangers going from home to home attempting to provide their “security” services to the fearful residents. Once they set up shop on a street corner, their presence provides much-needed focus to the film's meandering narrative, which comes across as a bizarre hybrid of Robert Altman's Short Cuts and Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga. The key to understanding Mendonça Filho's endgame lies in the black-and-white still images of plantation owners and slaves plowing the fields that open the film. These contemporary folks might be embracing the comforts of modern life, the filmmaker appears to suggest, but they're also preserving their forebears' sense of entitlement, a broken record of class-based contempt and paranoia. Lying just out of view is the country's colonialist past, embodied in Francisco's love of his land and the sugar mill he still runs. In a particularly disquieting sequence, Bia's daughter dreams that the undesirables from the other side of the tracks jump over the fence separating their two worlds and invade their closed off oasis.
And herein lies the intriguing dichotomy of Neighboring Sounds. How can such a languid, leisurely paced film feel so stifling? How can such an array of picturesque urban vistas and intricate aural landscapes result in something this claustrophobic? Mendonça Filho has made an accomplished feature debut, one that lingers long after its abrupt, elliptical conclusion.