Writing from Cannes on Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Kleber Mendonça Filho wondered: “What would the end of everything we know sound like?” In Neighboring Sounds, the Brazilian critic-turned-filmmaker’s feature debut, he builds soundscapes not with pulverizing sonic waves but with a dog's insistent bark, the faraway chatter of children playing, the sudden crash of cars at an intersection. Rather than a global apocalypse, the events depicted here are little more than a languid handful of days at an affluent block in the northeast city of Recife. Under Filho’s wily direction, however, this seemingly low-key stroll through upper-class Brazilian streets and apartments turns out to be just as chocked with anxiety.
Wandering into self-possessive reverie when not peering uneasily through the security bars on their windows, characters come together and drift apart in deliberately mundane situations. A real estate agent vainly struggles to convince a potential buyer that a former tenant’s recent suicide has no affect on the property’s value. A valet gets back at a snotty customer by keying the side of her car. A high-strung housewife smokes pot, schemes to poison a noisy pooch, and, in a bit of alienated flesh and humming machinery that plays like the ribald joke Frank Tashlin never got to make, has a carnal encounter with the vibrating corner of her washing machine. Presiding over them all is a white-bearded patriarch, an elderly landowner who, with his crumbling rural sugar-mill and casual, condescending authoritarianism, suggests an amalgam of the slave-owning colonels from colonial times and the strict figureheads from the military dictatorship—some of the darkest chapters from the country’s past. Suffused with paranoia, the gated community hires the services of a vaguely shady private security patrol, paving the way for the film’s increasingly ominous third act and its confrontational stinger.
From the onset, Neighboring Sounds traffics in contrasts. Black-and-white photos segue into a slithering, sun-dappled tracking shot; spaces are one moment nightmarishly crowded and as blank as an Antonioni wall the next; a loafing night watchman is himself watched on a surveillance camera while the landlord’s bored grandson burglarizes the car stereos down the street. What gradually emerges is a snapshot of anonymous, polished architecture erected on top of social, racial, and historical abrasions, with Filho’s oblique, almost perversely graceful atmosphere of submerged violence proving to be much more effective than the blunt frontal attacks of José Padilha. At times, the underlying dread turns to full horror, as when a dreamy pastoral interlude literally turns blood-red. Indeed, there’s more than a whiff of David Cronenberg’s Shivers to Filho’s high-rises, the sense of a sleek shell covering a perturbed, ailing center. That the tensions simmer and perpetuate themselves instead of exploding into monstrous release makes the film no less unsettling.