The debut fictional feature from Brazilian filmmaker and former film critic Kleber Mendonica Filho feels more the work of a seasoned veteran rather than a rookie raggedly knocking one out of the park their first time at bat. Imbued with the spirit of Robert Altman in terms of how sprawling slice-of-life epics should be handled and with a healthy dash of Luis Buñuel’s playfulness, Neighbouring Sounds (O Som Ao Redor) is truly a wonder to behold. It’s what truly great and vital cinema should be: something more than just entertaining and thought provoking that simply washes over the audience without talking down to them or giving them easy answers.
In the Northern city of Recife in the Purnambuco state of Brazil, residents of an upper middle class condo complex and the surrounding neighbourhood go about their daily lives in earnest, but not without series of interconnecting problems from time to time. João (Gustavo Jahn) is a struggling real estate broker whose sugar baron grandfather (W.J. Solha) essentially founded and made his fortune from the neighbourhood that’s declined in value following a recent violent incident. João has been hooking up with Sofia (Irma Brown), a woman recently returning to the block for the first time since 1990, and he’s pissed that her car stereo was stolen by his ne’er-do-well cousin. Single mother Bia (Maeve Jinkings) finds herself at her wits end between a constantly barking dog next door and a sister that’s prone to fits of violence. On top of that, two hustlers have established themselves as a sort of de facto neighbourhood watch that will lead to disastrous consequences despite the complex already having adequate security measures in place.
With Neighbouring Sounds, Mendonica has seemingly made several different and near impossible films in one and stitched them together into an exceptional tapestry. It’s a film about people living decidedly above the poverty line that feels vital, important, and never privileged despite many of the problems of the first two thirds being petty bullshit that could have very easily been boring. It’s a character study of average people, which in a better and kind of backhanded way makes it an exceptional sociological profile about how the average city dweller functions from day to day.
It’s a comparison not specific only to Brazil, but to any city, and the title perfectly conveys the ways that our lives, much like sounds waves, bump into each other. If I hesitate to use the word “crash” that’s because there’s no real point of comparison between this film and the one made by Paul Haggis other than saying that Mendonica’s film is the one Haggis wishes he could make. The butting of lives up against each other comes not only from the throbbing sounds of a bustling metropolitan area where people literally live on top of each other and the simple noise of a refrigeration unit can make sure that an apartment dweller is never alone. It also comes in the form of bright white walls that not only magnify the shadows that people project onto them, but it almost pulsates with an ethereal and sterile energy in the almost unlikely absence of sound.
About three quarters of the way in, a fairly foreseeable but necessary twist occurs that makes the film a bit more unsettled, but the destruction of the everyday rhythm of these people’s lives is the entire point of the film. The brief moments of joy and almost pervasive moments of melancholy never fully give way to fear and menace, but they also lead to something truly prescient and a moment of hard earned catharsis. It’s a satisfying, if somewhat opaque, conclusion to a story of true city dwellers. In the most contradictory of ways they can’t keep to themselves, but they’re so narrow minded they can never look beyond one singular fixation at a time. It’s unlike anything you’re likely to see in a cinema for quite some time and something that will likely never be done this well again.