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A masterful symphony in creeping unease and latent violence, this striking debut feature was already a multiple prize-winner before it picked up the headline awards for Best Fiction Feature and Best Screenplay at the Rio Film Festival last week. An ensemble drama set among the residents of a single street of middle-class apartment blocks in Recife, a coastal city in north-eastern Brazil, it cleverly uses jarringly intrusive sound design to suggest mounting urban tensions: barking dogs, pounding drums, fizzing firecrackers, street vendors blasting rival boombox music, and more.
Much recent Brazilian cinema has been characterized by urban crime thrillers grounded in social and economic inequality. The writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho addresses similar themes from a more elliptical angle here, interweaving a dozen characters from different class backgrounds, and hinting at unhealed wounds from a distant colonial past of plantations and slaves. This slow-building sense of disquiet is the main dramatic thrust, evoking Michael Haneke’s Hidden more than any homegrown blueprint. After further festivals screenings, including its London debut this week, Neighboring Sounds feels like it has the critical momentum for healthy theatrical interest worldwide.
The story begins with a petty crime. While playboy property agent João (Gustavo Jahn) spends his first night with potential new girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown), her stereo is stolen from her car outside. João suspects his hot-headed delinquent cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda), dropping in on his apartment to try and secure a confession. The tension between them is complicated by their joint family ties to Don Francisco (W.J. Solha), a former plantation boss who once owned the land beneath the entire neighborhood, and now lives behind protective bars in a sumptuous penthouse.
Meanwhile, down the block, single mother Bia (Maeve Jinkings) resorts to desperate measures to silence the dog next door. She also scores marijuana from her water delivery man, suffers an unprovoked attack from her unhinged sister, and uses the rhythmic action of her washing machine for solo sexual gratification. The script gives us almost no back story for any of these characters, no pointers about where our emotional or political sympathies should lie.
Into this noisy, suffocating web of densely packed urban tensions comes Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), self-styled boss of a private security firm offering the entire street a 24-hour protection scheme. But his obsequious politeness masks a more sinister agenda, which only comes to light following a series of illicit sexual liaisons and queasy bursts of violence. Clodoaldo’s arrival seems to act as a malevolent catalyst among the residents, reactivating ancient faultlines of class and race, privilege and poverty.
Although Filho divides this story into three formal chapters, the narrative is essentially an episodic jumble of freeform fragments and tonal shifts. Some scenes, such as when a committee of residents debate firing their ineffectual security guard, play as sharp-witted comedy. Others, including dream sequences featuring an eerily silent mass home invasion and a waterfall of blood, have the bone-chilling power of pure horror. The cinematography, always artfully composed and often coolly geometric, helps to impose a sense of order on a chaotic tangle of characters and stories.
Neighboring Sounds may frustrate some viewers with its laidback rhythms, loose structure and lightness of plot. The final scene, heavy with implied violence and historical vengeance, does not resolve all that has gone before. Even so, it delivers a powerful punch and leaves a lot of haunting questions in its wake. It is a rare film that makes open-ended ambivalence so explosively gripping, but Filho pulls it off with great panache and even greater promise.
Venue: Rio Film Festival screening, October 6
Production Company: CinemaScopio
Producer: Emilie Lesclaux
Cast: Gustavo Jahn, Irandhir Santos, Irma Brown, Maeve Jinkings, Sebastião Formiga, Yuri Holanda
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Writer: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Cinematography: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu
Editors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, João Maria
Music: DJ Dolores
Sales company: Figa Films, Vitrine
Rating TBC, 131 minutes
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