January 19 at Doc Films: “Neighboring Sounds”

By BRIAN BELAK

North American movies can be fantastic, especially when you get a year so full of brilliance as this past one (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Pacific Rim, just to name a few), but the reality is that there are also so many fantastic films being made in countries that are not the United States. The advent of Internet streaming services like Netflix has made seeing such foreign films quite easy, but it can still be difficult to find an actual theater screening any movie in a language other than English.

Hyde Park residents are therefore lucky to have Doc Films at the University of Chicago around to offer the opportunity to see these foreign language films on the big screen. This quarter Sunday nights are reserved for a look at contemporary Latin America cinema, featuring 2012’s Neighboring Sounds on January 19.

Neighboring Sounds, the first and only film (so far) from Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho, focuses on a middle-class neighborhood in Recife, Brazil, where a set of tenants, already made anxious by petty crimes rampant in the neighborhood, face the arrival of a private security team promising nighttime surveillance of all street-corners.

Although the film features an ensemble cast in the various tenants, Mendonça keeps the characters fairly separate for most of the narrative, focusing on only one or two people at a time. The effect is that what could have easily been a large-scale project about the neighborhood itself becomes an intimate character study instead, just with a large number of characters to study at a time. These characters will occasionally interact with one another, but they mostly remain physically apart, shut in their individual homes.

As hinted by the film’s title, one of the most interesting aspects lies in the sound design that envelops almost every scene throughout the film. Notably, save for a tense bass beat that opens the film and later returns to accompany a tenant’s late-night stroll, almost all of the sound of the film exists within the cinematic real world space, including at least three instances of pre-recorded music played by tenants as they go about their daily lives.

Sometimes these “neighboring sounds” have a hand in the literal events of the film, as happens with Bia, a mother in the neighborhood who spends a large part of the film engaged in a feud with a barking guard dog by her building. First Bia drugs the dog, but it continues to bark once awake, so she tries to just drown the barking out by playing Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” on full blast. Then she buys a device that emits a high frequency noise to quiet the dog, but using it elicits strong negative reactions from her children. What’s more, Bia’s maid short-circuits the device, and so Bia eventually resigns, beaten by the unending sounds around her.

More often, though, sound is used as a powerful tool of building atmosphere. Even though the tenants are mostly physically apart, the noise they generate pervades across the separation, and Neighboring Sounds finds it center-point in this claustrophobic space. A man washing his car puts on the radio and immediately drowns out any conversation happening on the block. A boy loses his ball over a wall and can be heard throughout the neighborhood calling for it to be thrown back by anyone on the other side. True life is loud and unavoidable, and here it only adds to the tension of the film. These people are both separate and forced to be together at the same time, for better or for worse.

Unfortunately, when approaching the film from an American background, much of the political allegory of the film can get lost or is somewhat difficult to grasp immediately. On a first watch, not knowing anything about Brazilian politics, the film comes across as a compelling examination of a claustrophobic neighborhood with a few scenes (particularly the opening slide show of black-and-white photographs of rural workers) that seem like they have more thought behind them but are just not self-explanatory.

However, after gaining familiarity with Brazilian life and culture (RogerEbert.com has this fantastic review from Brazilian correspondent Pablo Villaça), the film is revealed to be filled with commentary on the country’s middle class and the apathy held by its members towards economic turmoil outside of their immediate neighborhoods. They have their own problems to worry about, like comparing who bought the larger television set.

At a tenant meeting in Neighboring Sounds, most present are ready to fire their doorman because they don’t like him, regardless of the fact that he is elderly and probably depends on the job for his survival. The interaction between the tenants and their housekeepers is almost always negatively portrayed, showing a glaring disconnect even when sharing the same domestic space. When the security team promises protection from the petty thefts (mostly car stereos), the tenants are uneasy about surveillance, but ultimately support it, feeling it necessary to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately the economic divide only widens with the security, as seen when one guard physically assaults a (likely) homeless boy for no reason other than taking refuge in a tree.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.org.