Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 12, 2012 4:42 pm 
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Menace and isolation in a Brazilian city

This new film about class, disorder, and environment in Brazil reminded me of Celina Murga's very original study of children abandoned completely by their parents in a wealthy compound in Argentina, called A Week Alone/Una semana solos (Film Comment Selects 2009). Those children are in a gated community, and they are the ones who gradually take the law into their own hands. Kleber Mendonça Filho's film takes place mostly in contemporary Recife, the fifth largest city in Brazil, whose exploding economy has led to increasingly luxurious but soulless tower apartment buildings clumped in the built-up downtown. And they are in protected areas. Filho skillfully builds up a sense of menace and disorder, skipping around among various inhabitants of such a building, some of them from the same well-off family; their servants; and a newly arrived security firm whose real aims are clearly suspect, though the reason for their presence remains dark -- until the final frames. Kleber Mendonça Filho, has done a number of related short films, going back to a video in 1997. In this first feature, he succeeds in integrating many separate sequences because he knows his milieu so well.

Mendoça neatly pulls everything together, as the title warns, with "neighboring sounds." These can be an invasive stereo playing loud music, a dog's persistent howling which one of the main characters battles throughout (using drugs, a high-pitched electronic device, and firecrackers), or the scary drumbeats of the soundtrack warning of hostility or a strange interloper around the corner. Obviously Filho has used sound and music, as well as skillful editing and a narrative line that seems to ramble but knows very well what it's dong, to draw his portrait of city, society, and neighborhood that is rooted in the problems and dark history of a single family. Servants in some scenes seem intimate members of the families they work for, but the rooms the new apartment houses still provide for them are still hot and dark, and they can be dismissed or abused with ease. Plus there are layers of resentment because their parents were even worse used.

At least half the street belongs to the handsome, silver-haired Seo Francisco (W.J. Solha), who lives in a luxurious duplex. When a private security team arrives headed by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), Francisco coldly gives him the brush-off, annoyed that they already know who he is, and saying that his main interest now is in his plantation in the country, which appears ruined but is evidently the source of the family wealth. Francisco warns Clodoaldo to steer clear of his grandson Dinho (Yuri Holanda), evidently a young, directionless bad boy who steals things for kicks. His other grandson, João (Gustavo Jahn), has spend the night with a new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), and Sofia's car CD player turns out to have been stolen during the night by Dinho.

A central figure of the film to whom it keeps returning is Beatriz (Maeve Jinkings), who is always in her apartment, not as nice as Seo Francisco's by a long sight but comfortable. Her family, a young son and daughter who have Chinese and English private lessons besides school and a hardworking husband, is firmly middle class. Mother has her little helpers. A water delivery service man brings her her regular supply of marijuana, and she uses a loudly spinning washing machine as a giant motorized dildo. We keep returning to Beatriz. She isn't going anywhere. Of the film's characters, as Jay Weissberg of Variety points out, only Seo Francisco gets far afield, going down to the nearby shark infested ocean waters for a night swim, and relaxing in the country plantation. João also goes to the country place with Sofia and they wanter aimlessly in an abandoned school and a now grass-filled cinema. This sequence shows the ruins of a time when the underclass was exploited, as is hinted in a series of old black-and-white stills shown as the film begins. The way João and Sofia wander aimlessly recalls the upper bourgeois uselessness of the couple in Antoinioni's L'Avventura. Sofia lived in an apartment nearby the Recife building that is now about to be demolished to build another highrise tower. She and João visit it and its empty swimming pool. It's no surprise that Sofia disappears from João's life: she seems obsolete (though Francisco urges them to marry when they visit him in the country).

While all this is going on, the little private security company brought in by Clodoaldo is setting up shop down under a canopy down on the corner. With just a few men at the periphery and cell phones (which also are video cameras), they turn out to have the area very well covered indeed. But are they interested in protecting the well-off inhabitants, or do they have a more sinister aim in view?

Plainly Filho has built up a richly thought-out sense of this world, its class strictures, and its people from his earlier short films, elements of which, according to Weissberg, are seamlessly incorporated here. This is another socially astute, hauntingly assembled, highly original film from Latin America, and a thoroughly contemporary view of Brazil in which the word "favela" is used only to point out that this is not that. And while the director in a Statement for the film has spoken of an aspect of class relations being "a crippling fear of urban violence," no such generalizations are ever overtly or crudely made.

Neighboring Sounds/O som ao redor won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at Rotterdam, where it debuted. It has been picked up by Cinema Guild for US distribution, and will have its North American premiere at the MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center New Directors/New Films series March 21-April 1, 2012 (where it was screened for this review), with showings March 24 and 25, 2012.

The film opened in US cinemas August 24, 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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