The first images we see in Neighbouring Sounds are a series of black-and-white photos depicting life in a deprived countryside area. The context of these is entirely unexplained until the very final minute when all is made clear, at least for those willing to pay attention. The film crafted between these two points is an incredible work, brimming with alluring mystery and an acute eye for social observation, crafted with such technical control and intelligence that one could pore over its scenes for days at a time.
Case in point: the introductory scene just after the black-and-white photos. Writer/director Kléber Mendonça Filho introduces his main character, a middle-class high-rise neighbourhood in Recife, an oceanfront city in the Northeast of Brazil and the capital of Pernambuco state. The camera floats through the neighbourhood; tracking kids playing in blocked-off five-a-side pitches inside apartment grounds; looking downwards from top floors to see lovelorn messages graffitied into the road; even spotting a car rear-ending another.
Slowly, we are introduced to the characters populating this area. All of them are middle-class, with maids and servants busily going about their day in the background. There’s Bia (Maeve Jinkings), a bored housewife unable to sleep because of one neighbour’s incessantly barking dog, and given to using the washing machine as a masturbation aid. She is probably a coxinha. There’s Francisco, (W. J. Solha) an old man who, we later find out, owns most of the block and is therefore a very rich man. He is definitely a coxinha. There’s João (Gustavo Jahn), his grandson, who lives in one of the high-rises and is responsible for letting out the rooms. In a resident’s meeting where almost everyone is complaining about the aging but otherwise reliable and loyal night guard, he is his sole defender. He is probably not a coxinha, but his neighbours definitely are, and even then he still leaves the meeting before a vote is held to see a girl.
After a car is broken into and its contents stolen, Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) appears with some colleagues. They are a private security company, who offer themselves up to protect the neighbourhood. With a low-rise favela right next door to the coxinhas’ middle-class neighbourhood, they feel it best for everyone, although the viewer can never be quite sure of Clodoaldo’s motivations. His appearance is too well-timed, his pitch too well-written, his professionalism too exacting.
If you’re wondering what a coxinha is, I will explain. Coxinhas are the reason Brazil has no democracy right now. Coxinhas are the reason why Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president, was impeached by Brazil’s parliamentary system, despite there being no legal basis or proof of any wrongdoing on her part. Coxinhas are the reason why Brazil is now run by a far-right neoliberal fascist by the name of Michel Temer, who is himself beset by a million corruption charges which he is hurriedly trying to make legal so as to avoid prosecution. For argument’s sake, the very crime which Dilma was supposed to be guilty of was made legal by Temer’s government the day after her impeachment. Coxinhas are like Tories, but possibly worse, because the Tories at least pay lip service to democratic process. Coxinhas are almost exclusively white (in a country where white people make up only 40% of the population) and almost exclusively middle-class, and they have a vastly misplaced sense of their own self-worth and entitlement. Coxinhas are scum.
Now, Neighbouring Sounds is not a film about them. Neighbouring Sounds is about the wider structure of Brazilian society. Because of the vast inequality in the country, the middle-class have the sense that they are the most vulnerable (they’re not, but we’ll let them believe that for now). They are just rich enough so that they can afford nice things, but not so rich that they can afford to buy all the latest security equipment and personnel. Their ivory towers, which are designed with security in mind (night guards, gates, high walls, secure parking) are penetrable. Extra peace of mind can be sought, but not always bought. If a gang from the favelas were set on robbing the not-quite-rich, they easily could. It all engenders a sense of permanent paranoia, and it’s a paranoia built masterfully into Neighbouring Sounds’ mise-en-scene.
Taking his cue from Michael Haneke’s works, particularly Caché, Mendonça Filho uses his camera as if it was a voyeuristic surveillance device. Many scenes are framed with the camera around waist-level, as if it was crouching behind an object, trying not to be seen. Characters are frequently boxed into another frame, constrained by a door or a window. The sound design frequently hints towards sights unseen, keeping the eye attuned for moments we might otherwise miss. It makes one feel as if the camera is constantly making characters worried, as if its presence has them scared it might reveal something about them they don’t want revealed. The camera is a tool of evidence, a tool of implication. Its objects may or may not be guilty of a crime, but they act as if they are.
Brazil is a huge country, and its cinema has a vast variety of possibilities. For whatever reason, much of the modern Brazilian cinema I’ve seen has been focused largely on the social-issues side of things. In itself this is fine, but much of what arises from this feels far too unimaginative visually whilst also frequently descending into poverty porn; “oh would you look at all these poor folk, someone really needs to do something about that”.
In plenty of cases, these films show little understanding of the structural causes of this inequality, preferring to depict it simply as a problem with a theoretical, but as yet undiscovered, solution. Neighbouring Sounds differs from this. The entire film searches endlessly for the underlying causes to inequality. Not only that, but it does so in a breathlessly cinematic way, casting poetic glances at minor, yet revealing details, using the camera as part of the argument rather than a tool to simply capture the issue and put it on a display, like a museum piece to be chin-stroked at. In this way, Neighbouring Sounds asserts itself as one of the best films to come from the South American continent in recent decades. This is a film that understands what it’s about and what it wants to say. The Brazilian people are at an incredibly difficult juncture in the nation’s fledgling history. But as long as there are Brazilians producing films like this, there is hope.
Oh, and one last thing.