Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor)

Brazil (2012) Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho

In an affluent middle-classed neighbourhood in Recife the residents all live with their own daily foibles and personal crisis. Mother of two Bia (Maeve Jinkings) is constantly being kept awake by her neighbour’s dog and tries every trick in the book to silence the noisy hound. Elsewhere real estate agent João (Gustavo Jahn) and his girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown) find her car has been broken into and the CD player stolen.

João immediately suspects his wayward cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda) and confronts him, angering family patriarch Francisco (W.J. Solha), who once owned all the property in the neighbourhood which he is now selling off. Shortly after, an independent private security firm, headed by the smooth talking Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), arrive, offering to keep watch over the neighbourhood and give the residents peace of mind.

If Brazilian cinema is typified for many by urban gangster dramas such as City Of God then this feature film debut by former documentary maker Kleber Mendonça Filho offers a welcome alternative view of the world’s top coffee bean supplier. Filho takes us deep into the heart of a nouveau riche community complete with towering housing blocks, neatly kept gardens and expensive cars.

The other connecting factor for our prosperous cast is that they all have a maid, usually a middle aged woman of a rather plump build and often of an ethnic background. Some are treated like members of the family while others are kept at arms length.

Filho opens his film with a montage of black and white photos depicting a small rural community built around large house and a sugar plantation in mid 20th century Brazil, before cutting to modern day Recife where the young kids happily ride around the suburban complex on rollerblades and bicycles in brightly coloured attire.

The film is broken down into three sections – Guard Dogs, Night Guards and Body Guards – each one noticeably darker then the last in tone and mood.

The story kicks off with Bia and her sleepless nights at the hands of the howling dog next door, a plotline that is worth the price of admission alone. She gets a brief respite after throwing some meat laced with a sleeping pill at her tormentor but this is short lived. To get through the day, Bia smokes pot (bought from the water bottle delivery man) and pleasures herself against the washing machine!

She also gets into a fight with her sister over the size of their new TVs, suggesting a wealth war is an ongoing concern in the neighbourhood. While Bia’s husband is rarely around her two kids are and they are wise to their mother’s smoking and dog repelling actions.

João and Sofia’s relationship was the result of a one night stand but they seem to click well enough for her to stick around. João’s encounter with Dinho is ugly but he gets a CD player back as requested – although it’s not Sofia’s. “This one’s better than mine” she proffers.

Because of his former importance in the neighbourhood, retired ex-sugar magnate Francisco’s word still carries some clout and he takes João to task for accusing Dinho despite knowing what a devious little tyke he is. 

To that end, Dinho acts like he owns the town and is prepared to throw what little weight his family ties have around with arrogance abandon. When Clodoaldo shows up, he immediately seeks Francisco’s approval for his security business, which he gets on the proviso that Dinho is left alone. But Clodoaldo appears to a man with an agenda.

On the surface Neighbouring Sounds may appear to be a whole lot of nothing as Filho hasn’t quite managed to leave his documentary filming style completely behind, but that is the hook of the film – that it draws you into this world whereupon the viewer is as much a part of the community as the characters are.

Beautifully shot with some intimate camerawork, every sight, sound and smell feels palpable through the screen to lift this beyond a mere viewing experience. The fact that most of the quotidian happenings are relatable to most of us regardless of location helps this film travel beyond its native audience. I think we all have been kept awake by a noisy dog at one point in our lives, our felt inferior when our new 32” TV is dwarfed by next door’s 40” one!

As well as stealthily morphing into a dark drama with an ingeniously ambiguous ending, Filho is keen to add a subtle take on social issues in modern day Brazil, including slavery via the maids. In one scene when João is showing a prospective tenant around the flat belonging to a recent suicide victim, he makes a point of showing her the maid’s room “with a window”.

While João is openly appreciative of his maid’s work – who served his family beforehand – Bia is short tempered towards hers, reminding her of who is the boss. And while security is a key facet of the plot, it is interesting to note that an air of paranoia is prevalent as most of the houses are locked away behind huge gates and barred windows. So what can money buy you if not freedom?

With a cast made up largely of newcomers and non-professionals the characters have a credence to them that engages the viewer from the start while the story slowly creeps up on them. Filho gives us an astute character study as well as an incisive dissection of modern middle class Brazil this is deceptively deeper than its luscious visuals and initial pseudo-documentary style opening suggests, combining social commentary with wry humour.

Neighbouring Sounds is a film that won’t appeal to all tastes, but for those of you who like their cinema with a touch of intelligence, no pretensions and quietly compelling storytelling then this remarkable debut is very much worthy of your time.



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