“Neighboring Sounds”, a Brazilian film opening tomorrow at Lincoln Center and the IFC , now joins “Elena” on my short-list for best narrative films of 2012. As gimlet-eyed views of class divisions in Brazil and Russia respectively, they put characters into their social context—a convention of realist art that has gone by the wayside in independent film in the USA, mostly content to repeat stale mumble-core formulas. Realism might be defunct in America but in the rest of the world it is doing quite nicely, a function no doubt of the artist’s sense that not all is right and a duty to tell the truth about it.
“Elena” was a Balzacian tale about a minor oligarch’s conflict with his working-class wife who has demanded that he pay for her grandson’s college education. When he refuses, the consequences are fatal. Most of the film takes place in a sterile ultra-modern house that is second cousin to the absurd abode in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. It would appear that the architect who designed the oligarch’s house in “Elena” must have inspired the designs in the chillingly chic high rises of the Stubal district of Recife that loom large in “Neighboring Sounds”. The first thing you notice is the iron bars of every single window and every single door in each luxury building, leaving you with the nagging suspicion that such protection against the “criminal element” outside amounts to a kind of jail for those living behind them.
As is the case in “Elena”, the visible injuries of class are impossible to ignore. In Brazil, they are compounded by race. The people who own the condos in Stubal are lily-white while the housemaids, valets, security guards, doormen, and janitors come in various shades of brown or Black. The whites rely on those beneath them for their well-being and security but never really trust them. When a condo resident rudely tells a valet whose income is based totally on tips that she doesn’t need him to open her car door, he takes a key when she isn’t looking and scratches the trunk with a smile on his face.
Security is on everybody’s mind. At the beginning of the film, one of the condo’s chief investors, the grandson of the sugar baron who built most of the high-rises, is told by his new girlfriend that someone has stolen the tape deck from her car parked on the street. He goes down to the street and interrogates some of the members of the “informal economy” who rely on his largesse and that of other wealthy residents. Like the woman whose car has been defaced, he just assumes that he is in a position to talk to his inferiors as if he had police powers.
With so much crime on the streets below, the condo residents are persuaded to hire a team of security guards who function as a kind of middle strata between the rich and the poor. They are reliant on the rich for their income and suspicious of the poor who they are supposed to monitor. When they discover a shoeless young boy in a tree in the middle of the night, presumably on a burglary, they force him down, pin him against the wall and allow their chief to punch him in the face. He nonchalantly tells his men that it will teach him not to come back.
If life at the bottom is a brutal struggle to survive, there is not much pleasure being on top either. One of the major characters is a bored housewife who is haunted by a watchdog in the courtyard below that barks incessantly. One night she is so fed up that she buries a sleeping pill in a piece of red meat and throws it into the courtyard below, but only after taking a couple of the same pills herself.
Her running battle with the dog becomes one of the sardonic comic leitmotifs of “Neighboring Sounds”, amounting to a kind of art film version of the Roadrunner cartoons. She sends away for an electronic device that emits a high-pitched noise that is not only painful to the dog but just about anybody within earshot. After her children run to their rooms holding their ears in pain, she sits by the window with a wicked smile not unlike the man who attacked the trunk with a key. Clearly this is a society that is not just fraying at the edges; it is in an advanced stage of decomposition.
Director Kleber Medoça Filho employs a minimalist esthetic throughout that is a bit reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki but much more designed to draw the audience in rather than keeping it at arm’s length. By the same token, the Brazilian is much more intent on keeping the characters something of a mystery and leaving you with a feeling that they might act in unpredictable ways. At the very end of the film, we are left with the security guards and the sugar baron standing off against one another like a scene in “High Noon” when the film abruptly ends. You are left to your own devices to figure out how things will turn out.
This is Kleber Filho’s first film but he is no stranger to the film business, having been a critic for the past 14 years and finally deciding that he could do a better job making films than writing about them. He was right.
I urge you to read an interview with the director that appeared in Hammer to Nail film magazine during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, most of which deals with his aesthetic choices. But this exchange about social class is worth reproducing in its entirety, if for no other reason than to motivate my regular readers to seek out this edgy and informed social satire:
H2N: In terms of the story and the characters—you’re following this family that is sort of in decline; were you thinking of it… maybe I’m trying to over-explain it, but I was seeing it as the middle class as a whole in decline, as represented by this one family.
KMF: A little bit, but not really. A little bit, because historically that region was always known—or for three centuries was known—for sugar cane plantations. Which means that one of our problems—which maybe we’ve reached the end of that problem and now we’re beginning a new era, with the whole thing with Brazil and the economic boom, and Brazil is growing very fast—so for 300 years we had monoculture. The only thing that came out of Pernambuco, the state, was sugar cane, which means that the money was in the hands of maybe no more than 50 families, which were very rich of course, and over the last 40 years, 50 years maybe, sugar cane production became decadent. And ten years ago it reached a low point, the lowest point probably. So these families of course became decadent. And most of these families still act like they’re royalty, but they’re not. They’ve lost most of their money, property. So in a way, yeah—I think Francisco is a typically decadent child of sugar cane. But I don’t think the Brazilian middle class as a whole is decadent, in fact they are growing and becoming wealthier, and there’s a whole interesting social revolution going on now because the middle class is getting bigger because the lower classes are now becoming middle class, and maybe the upper classes are becoming rich, so it’s like a ladder and people are going up and pushing the people who were in the middle towards the top. So that’s why I said yes and no—yes historically but no in terms of the Brazilian middle class as a whole is not decadent. Maybe it is in terms of values, but I was thinking in terms of the sugar cane families. And you can see that when they go to the plantation. Beautiful place, but it’s falling to pieces. And the old cinema, and the actual processing plants, the mill.
The film will be appearing nationally after the NY debut. Scheduling information is here: http://www.cinemaguild.com/neighboringsounds/playdates.htm