Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Best of Netflix Instant: Neighboring Sounds (2012)

Lost amid the clamor for the once great Arrested Development's poorly conceptualized streaming-service return - the first few character-focused episodes suggest the further quickening of Season 3's already rapid regression toward the Ron Howard mean - May more significantly marks the Netflix Instant and home video premieres of one of the past year's most outstanding fiction-feature debuts, Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor, 2012). Set among the affluent tower blocks of metropolitan Recife - as one character pointedly protests, this is not a film of Brazil's favelas - Neighboring Sounds reveals a mode of upper/middle-class existence lived behind painted steel security gates, in perpetual fear of a mostly unseen under-class criminal other.

When and where Northeast Brazil's poorer population does appear within the heavily monitored community, there is at best some measure of awkwardness to their interactions with the residents (take for instance João's [Gustavo Jahn] conversation with the night cashier), not to mention the impression - one that the film conspires to confirm: see the sudden sharp ring of the telephone as a couple trespasses in an empty home - that they do not belong. Of course, Neighboring Sounds undercuts this simple calculus of the poor as criminal as it is the wealthy grandson of the community's most prominent resident, Francisco Oliveira (W. S. Sohla), who in fact is responsible for a string of car-stereo robberies. Neighboring Sounds, in other words, does not succumb to the breathtaking simplicity of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's favela-set City of God (2002), the last Brazilian fiction feature to receive a fair share of international traction, but rather reproduces a world where dangers exist both inside and outside the bright white bars of the high-security city.

Following a short prologue that commences with a set of rural-themed stills that retrospectively situate Neighboring Sounds within classical modernist discourses, and a long Steadicam set-up that serves as the first of two conspicuous references to The Shining (1980), Filho divides his surveillance-centered narrative into three sequential parts, with each referencing a different form of neighborhood security: "guard dogs" for part one, "night guards" for the second segment, and "bodyguards" for the climactic last. As the heavily elliptical, hyper-slow burn narrative progresses, from the comedic drugging of a canine that gives the first part its name to the concluding narrative left-turn that thrusts Neighboring Sounds into unexpected generic territory (more on this below) Filho and his cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu employ visual strategies associated with surveillance, be it in the telephoto zoom-ins that capture the film's alienated subjects (imprisoned within their well-appointed homes) or in the close-circuit work that literalizes said predilection.

Equally focal, thematically no less than graphically, is Neighboring Sounds' domestic architecture, whether it is as a reminder of the class-based fear around which the film's subjects organize their daily lives, or for the allegorical work that the steel bars do in echoing the picture's shifting set of protagonists' alienated experiences of twenty-first century Brazil. Maeve Jinkings' cannabis-smoking housewife presents the most conspicuous site for the latter discourse, while also providing one of the films's more memorable characterizations: it is the actress's Bia who incapacitates the yapping dog, pleasures herself atop a quivering kitchen appliance, and sporadically (if affectingly) mouths the lyrics to Queen's "A Crazy Little Thing Called Love," in a single, static close-up.

Apart from Bia and her Mandarin-speaking children - they drop their English lessons in favor of the sexier contemporary alternative - Neighboring Sounds focuses most consistently on the neighborhood patriarch Oliveira, a figure of the nation's and, as it happens, security entrepreneur Clodoaldo's (Irandhir Santos) past, and another of his grandsons, the aforementioned João, a discontent real estate agent whom the spectator first sees in the nude embrace of lover Sofia (Irma Brown). Part three will unite Francisco, João and Sofia at the old man's country estate (which, it should be mentioned, was featured in the opening stills). Here, the couple will come to explore the ruins of an abandoned cinema - where Filho supplies non-diegetic horror-film audio - and bathe, along with Francisco, beneath the thundering cascades of a secluded waterfall. In the latter case, in a further measure of the film's light surreality, and in the second of the Kubrick citations, the milky white water suddenly becomes blood red, washing over João's hair and shoulders.

Neighboring Sound's concluding passage, following its rural digression, will find Francisco confronted with a past crime, and in no position to defend himself against his would be avengers. In fact, as this final act will show, the security firm's very presence in the neighborhood, beginning near the conclusion of part one, is no more than a ruse to get close to the film's guilty patriarch. In this respect, Neighboring Sounds is explicit about its own dramatic construction, as a security plot orchestrated for other purposes, much as it will also knowingly exclude Sofia at the very end, inasmuch as "she has some other story, somewhere else." Neighboring Sounds, in other words, is a film that is fully aware of the means with which it discovers a dramatic subject amid its broader community cast - as its opening Steadicam also shows us. Perhaps Sofia's Neighboring Sounds will come later.

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