Film Review: ‘Neighbouring Sounds’

Neighbouring Sounds (2012) is Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s narrative feature debut, his previous stint behind the camera being Critico (2008), a documentary about interrelations between filmmakers and critics (his past profession). Set in his home city of Recife, the spiritual capital of northeast Brazil, Filho defies his relative inexperience with aplomb, pulling together a plethora of interconnected narratives into one coherent portrait of a prissy, middle-class neighbourhood – yet one teetering on the edge of violent conflict. Integral to this community is Francisco (W.J. Solha), a wealthy sugar cane baron who has gradually forgone a life in the country for a new challenge as an inner-city property developer.

Aided by his newly loved-up grandson João (Gustavo Jahn), Francisco rules his kingdom with a a firm handshake and a beaming smile. Across the street, meanwhile, one resident unable to keep the peace is exhausted mother-of-two Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who is plagued nightly by the incessant barking of the dog next door. As a private security firm move into the area to guard the neighbourhood from unwanted trouble, it becomes apparent that not everyone is quite who they appear to be. As the title Neighbouring Sounds would suggest, Filho places great emphasis on his film’s sound design, carefully constructing a vibrant patchwork quilt of living, breathing characters, each with their own unique relationship to the aurally-rich, Setúbal apartment blocks that surround them. The results are often awe-inspiring.

The aforementioned Bia, in particular, is driven to the point of madness by next door’s howling Weimaraner, finding eventual – if fleeting – solace in the most innocuous of household appliances. Akin to the very nature of soundwaves, each characters’ actions relay and rebound off crumbling walls and across tiled streets, bringing neighbours together by a number of surprising and inventive means – with wildly varying results. Yet, the success of Neighbouring Sounds is by no means limited to Filho and sound designer Pablo Lamar’s affinity with audio. Shot with the precise, mathematical eye of an architect, Recife’s high rises take on huge symbolic significance; they are the gleaming ivory towers that house the city’s rich, who look down to the streets below with a mix of both disdain and trepidation. Humour is also extracted from class.

In one comic scene midway through the film, the residents of João’s apartment building discuss the most humane way to fire their elderly doorman, who has been caught on video asleep at his post. Bourgeois vitriol simmers throughout, with only the likeable João standing up for his man. A climactic, melodramatic plot twist may prove a step too far for those enjoying this slow-burning Brazilian soap opera, but it does at least adhere to the film’s overarching principles. Each and every person is held accountable for their own actions in the present, whilst past transgressions can return to haunt (and ultimately punish) the guilty like a vengeful echo through time. For both its intelligent, pioneering approach to multi-narrative storytelling and its director’s impressive craftsmanship, Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds borders on the unmissable.

Daniel Green