Filho shows off some impressive skills as a director that’ll certainly make him someone to watch in the future.
The neighborhood watch has probably never felt as unsafe as it does in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds. The Brazilian drama, which snatched up a FIPRESCI prize at Rotterdam, is a well-done but a flawed debut feature. Filho shows off some impressive skills as a director that’ll certainly make him someone to watch in the future, but his ambitious approach ends up straining what could have been a much better film.
The movie starts with a series of black and white photographs at a sugar mill before cutting to children playing around an apartment building. The city is Recife, and we soon learn that the street the film takes place on is the fruits of one family’s labor at the sugar mill (or, more accurately, the fruits of other people’s labor). Francisco (W.J. Solha) owns the majority of the real estate on his street, while his grandson João (Gustavo Jahn) tries to sell condos in his family’s apartment building. The neighborhood seems ordinary, but there’s a mean streak just below the surface. A woman poisons a neighbor’s dog who keeps her up at night, a man keys the car of a woman who treats him poorly and someone keeps stealing CD players out of cars.
It’s at this point that a group of men offering security for the street swoop in to provide their services. Everyone agrees, and Francisco gives his blessing but strictly tells the guards not to bother his grandson Dinho (Yuri Holanda) who, naturally, is the one breaking into all the cars. The plot is established at a leisurely pace, and in no time the security crew is patrolling the streets.
What Filho shows throughout Neighboring Sounds is how tense the class relations are between the upper class residents of the neighborhood and their lower class workers. While the neighbours all agree to hire security, a subtle power shift begins to occur within the street. The presence of guards throughout the day does nothing but heighten everyone’s fears over petty crimes, with most people staying locked in their homes instead of going outside.
Most of Neighboring Sounds’ power comes from Filho’s observational skills. In the first hour most of the film feels like an ensemble piece with the camera cutting back and forth between different residents while showing their daily turmoils. Filho has a precise style with the camera always moving smoothly (there appears to be little to no handheld or steadicam shots throughout the film) which heightens the prison-like feeling most of its characters are experiencing. Filho manages to balance his rigid style with a warm visual palette and naturalistic performances from his cast that removes any sense of distance from its characters.
Unfortunately, Neighboring Sounds starts to wear out its welcome by the end. Running at 130 minutes, the film starts to stretch out its premise to the breaking point. Later sequences including a birthday party for an unknown character start to drag things down, and despite a strong ending that brings most of Filho’s themes to the forefront the impact is dulled from the drawn out scenes before it. If Neighboring Sounds was able to keep up the momentum from its first half the film would have been something truly great, but nonetheless it’s still an impressive debut feature.