Violence is an important facet in Brazilian cinema. Some of the country’s most successful films in the past decade have all dealt with violence in both an explicit and overtly aestheticized manner. To this end, Neighboring Sounds aims for a refreshing take on an old subject. Gone are the favelas, the shoot-outs, the police corruption, and the depiction of a country as if it were on the brink of civil war. Treading on a whole different path of films such as City of God and Elite Squad, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s debut feature is a carefully-crafted, 120-minute ensemble piece that explores the effects of violence among the middle class.
Neighboring Sounds is all about class struggle, and at the heart of this struggle lies the ever-looming potential of imminent violence. Fear and anxiety creep in every household, defining relationships with the outside world and creating a climate of paranoia and apprehension. The middle class feels fragile, and Mendonça knows how to convey that sentiment. The setup is a simple one: a middle-class neighborhood where an act of petty burglary paves the way for a private security firm to set up business on the street. While it soon becomes apparent that there is nothing for this firm to actually guard against, the narrative slowly builds itself on a constantly tense note. Mendonça does an exceptional job in communicating the dreadful feeling of danger and anxiety through sound and a refreshing cinematography that relies not on shaky handheld camerawork, but on long steadicam shots. While one could initially question the use of a 2:35:1 aspect ratio for a film that so heavily deals with the urban feeling of entrapment and paranoia, the choice ends up working surprisingly well, with meticulously designed shots of endless strips of walls and security measures constantly suppressing individuals as they stroll along gates and iron bars.
The Brazilian middle class rarely comes into direct contact with violence, but its presence is constantly felt in their inner fears. While the film takes place in the northeastern city of Recife, the same trend can be observed in any major Brazilian city. As an inhabitant of Brazil’s largest southern city, I could relate to everything Mendonça depicts as naturalized aspects of our daily life: gated communities, private security firms, window bars, large walls, electric fences, and a whole slew of security measures that preys on our fears and corroborates our ever increasing paranoia. Actual physical violence is never shown on screen, and with the exception of the film’s final minute, no off-screen violence occurs either. Violence is ever present, yet never materialized.
Class struggle comes in many forms, and Mendonça conveys this by leaving in subtle details that could easily be missed by a foreign audience. Housemaids, for example, are an everyday aspect in Brazilian society, and most middle class homes have one, sometimes even housing them during the week in a spare room so they only need to return to their distant suburban homes for the weekend. This creates a particularly odd and often unspoken tension, as a physical proximity is deeply contrasted to an enormous social gap. Mendonça skillfully explores some of these aspects by displaying the awkward social interactions that occur with the maids, who are treated in a friendly but often condescending manner. Once again, class inequalities make for a social distance that reinforces our notions of the lower strata as something Other to either fear or patronize.
Despite moments when Neighboring Sounds seems to tread off path and threatens to lose its narrative focus, my only major complaint lies with the final and completely out of place climatic twist. Having said that, since Neighboring Sounds builds itself on a never fulfilled promise of a plot, an unnecessary plot twist is not nearly enough to work against Mendonça’s otherwise remarkable debut. Not only is Neighboring Sounds one of the best portraits of contemporary Brazilian society, but it’s also a strong contender for best Brazilian film of the year.