The sounds are heard around a burgeoning middle-class street in Brazil’s Recife, half of which used to be owned by silver-bearded patriarch Francisco, but which is now mostly tower blocks. First-time feature director Kleber Mendonça Filho reworks some of his shorts material to lay out a mosaic of life on this particular, present-day street, both aurally and visually, centered largely on the extended family who have always lived there. The camera wanders through a playground of kids, or spies on a kissing couple near a rooftop below. Other extras and kids pop up from time to time – the kissing girl even gets to answer to her called-out name later on – but the film concentrates on a relatively small handful of characters, following them through the inconsequential mundanities of everyday life.
There’s young housewife Bia, whom in England would be described as a “yummy mummy”, with a nice home and family, but tormented by the barking of the neighbors’ guard dog. Otherwise, she seems terminally bored, smoking pot, loitering around her kids’ Mandarin lesson, and riding the jiggly corner of her washing machine. She’s part of the tapestry of low-key daily events, but Filho keeps her quite separate from the other characters, because he needs her only to set off firecrackers at the end.
Elsewhere we see family scion João and his new girlfriend as they chat with the help, or he with his uncle or cousin. Halfway through, they take a trip to grandfather’s sugar plantation in the country. Like the rest of the film, this rural interlude is carefully shot and edited; on the street from which we otherwise do not stray, the film-making skill and unstarry amiability of the cast just about carries the lack of story, incident, momentum in a convincing-enough simulacrum of “lifelikeness”. The unexpected excursion is of dubious relevance. Their visit to an overgrown movie palace is thudding; and the trio beneath a heavy waterfall is transparently included for reasons of visual extravagance rather than anything remotely to do with character. This little pastoral at the center of the film, however, is a welcome break from the growing suspicion that the urban portrait is not going to add up to much.
The specter of crime haunts the street, but it’s perpetrated solely by the bad kid in the family, who’s largely kept in check, and protected by grandfather. There bars on the windows but what threat there is is vague. Likewise the evolving neighborhood, with the proliferation of tower blocks, and the monumental anonymity that may prompt a residence to suicide, are present also as backdrop rather than subject for exploration. The socio-economic malaise seems barely to impinge upon the characters’ consciousness or actions, in the same way that story strands proceed without coinciding, or affecting one another; even the individual characters barely seem to make an impact on each other: the relationship between João and his girlfriend does not grow, but just is, until it just isn’t anymore.
Suspense is built largely on wondering what the bored Bia will get up to next; perhaps imagining the colorful past life of Sebastian (and why he might go night swimming in shark-infested waters); or whether the ominous subsonic rumbles and portentous bass drum on the soundtrack portend anything interesting. The few chains of events swiftly peter out. There’s even a mysterious feral-esque child who may or may not be the same figure observed crossing the night-time rooftops, rustling in a tree, and appearing in a supremely pointless shock moment in an apartment that’s supposed to be empty.
There is one action that has consequences, but that has taken place long before this film starts, and barges in only at the end. The tapestry’s third strand concerns a private security firm who hustle their way into patrolling the street, seeming shady at first, but in fact fairly affable and competent. If one has settled down with the lack of story, character, and incident, and brushed aside the disappointment that this is not really a portrait of the street and community, then the literally last-minute revelation makes for an unwieldy and unearned climax that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. Hints of political cause, and Brazil’s difficult social past are tacked on in the most insidiously meretricious way.
Lives may indeed be this bland, but surely not this devoid of thinking and feeling. In its attempt to evoke various (serious) social, political and economic issues via a would-be deceptively banal series of non-events, Neighboring Sounds is undone by its own superficiality. The ending is undeniably a surprise to the audience, but whether or not it is a surprise to the other characters, we can have no way of knowing. Nor is there a cogent point to be made by the final cut-to sequence and freeze frame. Unconvincing and underwhelming, as either social or human portrait.
(Brazil, 2012, 124 mins)
In Portuguese, English, Mandarin with English subtitles
Directed By: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Producer: Emilie Lesclaux
Screenwriter: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Cinematographers: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu
Editors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, João Maria
Music: DJ Dolores
Cast: Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn, Maeve Jinkings, W.J. Solha