The Brazilian city of Racife is like any other urban locale. It’s a big, bustling mix of upper and lower class residents, there’s a sense that anything could happen here and the place is never truly quiet. Plagued by a series of petty crimes the residents of a particular block decide to take a street security team up on their offer to protect the area at night. Each business and household chips in a monthly fee, and they sleep easy knowing their valuable are safe.
At least, that’s the plan.
But as the new security guards patrol the block at night tensions begin to increase. As the residents go about their days working, playing and screwing an unease begins to settle over the area. Mistrust between employers and their lower class employees builds. And the noises, constantly, fill the air.
Neighboring Sounds is study of social paranoia in cramped quarters. Brazil is a nation plagued with strong ethnic, racial and class divides. It’s not alone in this obviously, but the vast majority of its population crams itself into the cities forcing a melting pot of uncooperative elements. There’s little you can do to distance yourself from your neighbors, and discomfort can quickly turn to distrust.
Kids play in the street, teen lovers make out in an alley and their adult counterparts have sex in the apartments above, but the carefree times are balanced by stress inducers. A car crash, a stolen car radio, a dog that howls day and night and a water delivery guy who doubles as a drug dealer are just some of the annoyances and unsavory happenings that lead the community to hire the outside security force. But their quest for safety may be heading them in the opposite direction.
Seu Francisco (WJ Solha) is the white-haired patriarch of the block who sits in his luxury condo high above the streets descending only at night to literally swim in shark-infested waters. His days of real power are behind him, but he still carries the weight of a man who’s held fates in his hand. His grandson Dinho is a common thief, and when Francisco grants his approval to the incoming security team he does so with the caveat that Dinho remain untouched. It’s a power play that leaves the security guards with little to do aside from harass children, offer directions to lost visitors and sneak away for carnal relations with the help.
Writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho has crafted an ensemble drama with characters moving in and out of each others lives both intentionally and against their will. He divides his film into three parts, each more ominous than the last, and accomplishes a lot through simple observation. We see the frustration grow on peoples’ faces as they grow annoyed, upset and concerned, and we feel their unease at what may be coming. Filho takes only a couple brief opportunities to move away from reality, but they both work beautifully. One is simply a flowing waterfall that turns blood red, but the other is a child’s dream involving an army of intruders who scale a fence to enter the yard. It’s supremely creepy and rivals scare scenes in many horror films.
Neighboring Sounds has a leisurely pace that slowly turns from casual to ominous, and it results in an occasionally unsettling experience. A tighter narrative could have helped by reigning in loose threads and placing a stronger focus on the film’s thesis, but as it stands the movie is a somewhat fascinating glimpse into a community on edge.
The Upside: Building sense of unease; fantastic use of sound; child’s nightmare is creepier than most horror films
The Downside: Lacks a definitive narrative; ending is a bit unfulfilling
On the Side: Neighboring Sounds is Kleber Mendonça Filho’s narrative feature debut.
Neighboring Sounds opens today in limited theatrical release.