In the movies, the state of a building—or, in the case of Neighboring Sounds, a series of buildings standing in for Brazilian society itself—can usually be judged by the water line of its swimming pool. Here, it’s three-quarters drained and getting filthier by the day. First-time director Kleber Mendonça Filho isn’t generally given to such obvious signposts, but in a film that keeps its allegory elusive and mysterious, sometimes to a fault, it’s nice to have something to grasp. Through the residents of a crumbling middle-class city block in Recife, a city on Brazil’s northeastern coast, Filho looks at the fault lines that open up between people of varying races, social classes, and generational identities. Yet the beauty of the film is how organically its themes are presented—it’s a slice of life that comes about its sweeping ideas with surprising delicacy.
True to its title, the sound design plays a sophisticated role in mapping out the everyday grievances that beset the film’s characters, from a dog’s incessant barking to the unrest that slowly encroaches from the streets outside. Kept awake by the dog, Maeve Jinkings is a picture of domestic distress, a well-to-do housewife with two children who nonetheless sneaks off to smoke pot and get intimately acquainted with the spin cycle of her washing machine. Elsewhere, W.J. Solha, the aging owner of half the property on the street, mediates a conflict between one grandson whose girlfriend had a stereo stolen from her car and another grandson who’s almost certainly responsible for the crime. Worries about the state of security in general bring a dubious organization, headed by Irandhir Santos, which offers to watch the neighborhood from dusk ’til dawn for a fee that seems more like mob protection money.
Divided into three parts with “guards” as the common denominator, Neighboring Sounds counts Santos’ appearance and motivation as its sole concession to plot. Over a patient stretch, it’s content to sit back and observe the corrosive tensions that define life on the block, whether it’s middle-class tenants considering the dismissal of an aging doorman, the hostility between a servant and her boss over a minor offense, or that damned dog that won’t stop disturbing the peace. Native Brazilians will no doubt pick up more allusions than outsiders, but Neighboring Sounds is a beautiful, scarily assured debut, a collection of small moments that add up to a pointillist wonder.