Directed by: Kleber Mendonca Filho || Produced by: Emilie Lesclaux
Screenplay by: Kleber Mendonca Filho || Starring: Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn, Maeve Jinkings, W.J. Solha, Irma Brown, Lula Terra, Yuri Holanda, Clebia Souza, Albert Tenorio, Nivaldo Nascimento
Music by: DJ Dolores || Cinematography: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu || Edited by: Kleber Mendonca Filho, Jao Maria || Country: Brazil || Language: Portuguese
Running Time: 131 minutes
Brazil’s most widely acclaimed and commercially successful features of the past decade are City of God (2002) and the Elite Squad (2007, 2010) films, movies that evoke the country’s now famous “aesthetics of hunger” cinematic style that combines poverty-stricken, favela livelihoods with the cinematic funk and musical excitement of a MTV music video. City of God and both Elite Squads turn gangster turf wars and militarized police shootouts into brilliant cinematic displays of style, with plenty of thematic substance to back them up; however this style’s focus remains limited to the relationship between law enforcement and the poorest citizens of Brazil, or at its broadest scope, the incredible economic divide between the country’s wealthiest and those living in crime-stricken poverty.
What those films don’t do, beyond a healthy backhanding of leftist middle-class naivety regarding criminality and police violence, is focus on the lifestyles and mentality of the nation’s mainstream bourgeois culture. Neighboring Sounds, the first feature-length movie by film critic Kleber Mendonça Filho, is a picture that addresses the everyday lives, mindset, and cultural awareness of this socioeconomic group.
Neighboring Sounds’ thematic analysis and criticism of bourgeois culture could be expanded to any capitalist society with a healthy middle-class, as the critiques of social awareness (or lack thereof), lack of appreciation for their material wealth, and general paranoia, xenophobia, and condescension with regards to those less well-off are universal cinematic tropes that have long transcended national borders. With particular regard to the film’s setting, the city of Recife, Brazil, the narrative focuses on the insular, almost claustrophobic lifestyles of the urban middle-class and how the bourgeoisie are slowly suffocating themselves with their shallow material possessions and paranoia of the socioeconomic “others” who live within and around their community.
There is nothing fascinating or eye-opening about the film’s story or its subject-matter. It’s the same socioeconomic message we’ve heard in countless films before: The middle-class are socially naive with respect to their position in between the rich and the poor, they lack cultural and social class empathy, they tend to be shallow and obsessed with money, they’re mindless consumers, they’re not socially responsible, yadayadayada …
What is interesting about Filho’s film is how he envisions this social critique cinematically. Screenplay-wise, this movie is nothing we haven’t seen before, but in terms of film-direction, it’s a different story. Filho intersperses little moments of social freedom amongst the suffocating, crowded, increasingly prison-like environment that is itself well set up through terrific establishing shots. Brief moments of escape include a teenage couple kissing in an isolated alleyway, a mom receiving a desperate but cute impromptu message from her children, and a boy playing soccer on apartment rooftops before he accidentally kicks his ball down to the streets below. Filho also aligns his establishing shots with precise match cuts, bridging thematic continuity and emotional overtones from scene to scene with potent thematic intensity.
Finally, the film’s use of sound is edited to highlight the story’s running theme of social isolation and character withdrawal. Characters are seen behind countless bars around their houses, fences, doors, and windows as if they are incarcerated, and everyone feels cut off from one another. The only thing that connects them are the titular neighboring sounds that remind members of the community they do in fact live together. The running gag with a single mom on a quest to silence the next-door dog that never shuts up is a highlight of the film’s many well staged character moments.
What will make you stick with Neighboring Sounds if you have the artistic patience necessary is the great directorial debut by Kleber Filho. His screenplay is noticeably less impressive, and the fact that the material is so well-worn, especially in the dramatic filmmaking, doesn’t help his narrative generate immediate emotional impact or intellectual curiosity. However, Filho and his cinematographic skills, in coordination with smart editing, make this a social commentary worth watching even if his writing pulls a few too many punches.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Filho’s direction, editing, and ability to speak volumes cinematographically compensates for his lack of exemplary dialogue, interesting characters, or focused narrative.
— However… the screenplay does little to reinvigorate this predictable narrative or its done-to-death thematic content. The characters, while well acted, are none too fascinating.
? Boo! It’s the poor people!