Neighbouring Sounds

History’s chickens always come home to roost. That’s one possible lesson in Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor), the impressive 2013 debut feature by Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho.

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The film’s setting is the coastal city of Recife. Its characters are the dwellers of a single street in the city, and eventually the men who come as a private security firm to guard the street. But, unlike in many ensemble films, there’s no defining moment that changes all the characters’ lives. Instead, it’s as if all the characters live different lives set to the one same the rhythm.

One Rhythm to rule them all,
One Rhythm to find them,
One Rhythm to bring them all,
and in the darkness bind them.

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The rhythm is established in film’s first few minutes, a montage of black-and-white still images of a sugar plantation set to the sound of violently pounding drums. And so we meet a woman who can’t sleep because the neighbour’s dog keeps barking, a man who’s fallen in love with a woman whose car stereo the man’s hoodlum cousin has perhaps stolen, that man’s friend who dreams about the past, and, finally, the most important man of all, Francisco, now white-bearded but still tough, literally swimming at night with the sharks, who owns the land on which the buildings on the street stand. It’s Francisco who sets the rhythm; or, more appropriately, who set the rhythm with his tough rule over his sugar plantation, which the man in love (Francisco’s son) visits with his beloved, to see now in ruins.

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The security firm arrives. Its few members appear bumbling, incompetent. Soon, however, we learn their histories, too, and see their rhythm, and their rhythm begins to transform the rhythm of the street, the one set by old Francisco. In life, as in football, rhythm means control. How many times has the Brazilian national football team dominated an opponent by impressing its slow, suffocating Samba rhythm on them? (Most recently in this year’s Confederations Cup: “Brazilian rhythm too strong for Italy”)

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To say more would be to spoil the film, which is a kind of slow thriller that doesn’t rely on thrills but on impressions and whose strength isn’t as much its finale as it is the buildup, where contemporary Brazilian life is put on full display: infused with the past, fractured by classes, and shoved together—rich and poor, white, black and brown—in tight spaces like Francisco’s apartment buildings. Life will go on. Its rhythm will not be extinguished, only altered, but one must always be mindful of the chickens.

Neighbouring Sounds is the most unexpectedly good film from Brazil I’ve seen since stumbling upon Heitor Dhalia’s 2006 comedy Drained (O Cheiro do Ralo) a few years ago. Dhalia, incidentally, was born in Recife.

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NB: Sometimes I’m careless with using the term filmmaker and not using more specific terms like director, cinematographer, editor, etc. In this case, Kleber Mendonça Filho is the director, writer, co-editor and sound designer of his film. That’s impressive.

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