It must be really difficult sitting down to write your debut film. Your very first one. It’s hard enough trying to decide the first line of anything you write, what must it be like trying to work out what your very first statement to the world, in your guise as film maker? It’s doubtful that many people would opt to make what Kleber Mendonça Filho has made in Neighbouring Sounds.
It has story, but there’s not really any plot. Things happen over the course of the movie, and there is the conflict and resolution that any drama requires, but nobody should go into this film thinking that they will get a neat little package, with a hero and a villain all tied up in a pretty little bow. This is a film of hidden motives and realistic characters. It’s a film that feels like it is actually happening right this second, somewhere in the world.
It’s a slice of life film, in that the characters and events were there before you started watching, and will carry on once the credits roll. It’s about a relatively upmarket street in the Recife region of Brazil, and the things that happen there over the course of a few days. The street might be relatively middle-class but still suffers from a fair amount of street crime – a major event early on in the film is the theft of a stereo – and leads to what becomes the backbone of the film.
Essentially, there’s a minor spate of robberies in the area, after which a small private security force arrives and informs each familial unit on the street that, for a minor contributory fee, they will look after the street at night. Whether or not this team actually committed a few of the crimes remains unresolved.
This air of tension carries throughout Neighbouring Sounds. Nightmares become flesh in some genuinely intense moments, and the melancholic undertones provided by the score give a sense that violence lies just around the corner. This, combined with the subtle references to slavery, or at least colonialism – wealthy families living in sealed off buildings, protected from but employing a poorer underclass that are too stupid to fend for themselves – when combined with the current Occupy movement going on around the globe, gives the film a minor revolutionary fervour. From the bored mother of two intelligent, well-behaved kids who can’t abide the dog next door without smoking marijuana or gratifying herself on a vibrating tumble dryer to the petty criminal grandson of the street elder, riding on the coat tails of his father and grandfather’s success without giving anything back to society, this looks like a class that is doomed to end shortly. They can’t continue to exist in this way.
The film is also shot beautifully, with very stationary, colourful imagery. Filho finds the beauty in the colourful Brazilian cityscape, down the back alleys and the sides of colourful buildings. The class distinction the film makes is interesting, shown visually with much of the scenes of the rich taking place in gated hallways and small rooms, and the poor taking place outside, sun shining, birds chirping.
It’s a film with a lot to say about modern Brazil, and the current protest movements around the world. It’s possible to watch the film and not pick up on that subtext, but to do so would do the film a disservice.
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