Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds is a film one would love to like. It's clever, and it features the city of Recife, prized by Brazilians as the birthplace of famous writers Gilberto Freyre, Clarice Lispector, and Nelson Rodrigues, to name a few, not to mention one of the earliest regions settled by the Portuguese, and so intimately tied to Brazil's history. On the surface, the film belongs to the crime genre: After a city block suffers a series of burglaries, its inhabitants hire a security firm to patrol it. But most of our assumptions are turned upside down as soon as you accept this premise.
Unlike in some Brazilian films shot in and around shanty towns, we don't witness much real crime happening: a dog kept outside (for security, we must assume) is a howling nuisance; a water porter delivers weed to a high-strung housewife; a man paid to park cars scratches one; and a girl dreams up a small army of young boys jumping the security fence and taking over her building. Meanwhile, the real menace, Dinho, who steals CD players from cars, happens to be a grandchild of Francisco, a scion of a sugar-plantation family, a real-estate owner, and one of the wealthiest men on the block. Dinho's criminal behavior is above the law, which leaves the security men to chase a barefoot youngster hiding in a tree, and to punch him, as a precautionary measure (he may or may not be a thief).
Mendonça Filho flips what we assume are the guards' motifs—spoiler ahead!—when protectors become killers. To be fair, there are early hints at this, and the film's conclusion doesn't satisfy entirely. More interesting, perhaps, is how the filmmaker builds up to it, by showing that social fears can come from within as much as from without—projection as much as reality. The fears of the apartment block's tenants result from their lack of privacy, as living spaces are overpopulated by maids, housekeepers, and cooks. A young couple is caught in flagrante, and tiptoes naked, as a cleaning lady shows up for work; a maid sneaks out for impromptu sex with one of the guards in an apartment he's supposed to guard, without realizing that there's someone at home. The sense of forced intimacy is indeed oppressive.
Throughout Neighboring Sounds, Mendonça Filho expresses this psychological compression through sound: the incessant barking of a neighbor's dog, the stereos of street vendors, the vrooming of vacuums, the vibrations of washing machines, the TV noise, or the atmospheric noise of thunder and electricity, enfolded into a languid Afro beat. The sound serves as refrain and punctuation, especially when dialogue becomes somewhat static.
While the film's casual pacing and its use of a crime story to surprising ends bring to mind Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon in Anatolia, the plurality of voices in Neighboring Sounds doesn't provide for a similarly rapturous, concentrated looking—rather, it's episodic, with the story's larger themes given almost as much importance as the trivial ones, as if everything were being captured on a surveillance camera. The surveillance becomes voyeuristic in the scenes where two teenagers make out in a courtyard and a stoned housewife masturbates in a laundry room.
Mendonça Filho never loses sight of the fact that the paranoiac state—craving more security, but then feeling even more unsafe—that plagues this microcosm of the Brazilian upper-middle class is a result of the huge disparity between the rich and the poor. To cement this theme, the filmmaker takes us out of Recife and to Francisco's plantation villa, with its overgrown Savannah-like gardens and stone statues—a vision of Eden, built on the backs of slaves. The images, while beautiful, are sentimental, as if Filho is trying to negotiate too much: on one hand, honoring the Brazilians' attachment to the grander, less “compressed” past, against relentless urban encroachment, and on the other, condemning the unjust system of privilege it has created.
The social and historical complexities feel at times like artificial appendages to his story, even as they confirm Mendonça Filho's considerable ambition. For all of Neighboring Sounds's sly pleasures, you may wish that it had shed some of its determinism, and given us a vision of not only where Brazilian society has come from, but also where it's going.