(Kleber Mendonça Minho, 2012)
The multi-strand drama, done well, offers a unique opportunity to portray the nuances and tensions in a culture or society. Over the years directors like Michael Haneke, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson and John Sayles have all done exceptional work with such dramas addressing a wide variety of eras and specific social networks. And now, Kleber Mendonça Minho has joined these ranks. His debut, Neighbouring Sounds, is a wry, atmospheric, quietly disturbing depiction of the tensions and issues facing modern day middle class Brazil.
Set in an affluent residential suburb of the prosperous Brazilian City of Recife, it traces various inhabitants of a single street over the course of a few months. The street is largely lined with big houses hidden behind high walls and gates and modern high rise apartment buildings. Its residents are a mixture, suggesting the tensions afflicting class relations in Brazil. There are the new middle classes, young professionals with well-paid jobs and enough money to enjoy nice properties. Here they are represented by the family of Bia, a housewife whose barely-glimpsed husband works. They own a house, their kids go to extra classes for English and Chinese, they can afford to buy a huge flatscreen tv; and Bia has the luxury of boredom, obsessing over the annoying barking of next door's dog and masturbating with the aid of the vibrating washing machine.
Then there are the lower classes; the working poor. The tensions between these groups decorate every strand of the story, since these people work mainly as servants. They are the cooks, car-valets and maids who allow the wealthier characters the ease they enjoy in their lives. And yet they are uncomfortably close, often living in the same houses, sharing small spaces. This enforced intimacy can be comic - as in the scene where a maid turns up for work and catches her boss naked on the sofa with last night's conquest - or awkward, like the moment where Bia's maid breaks an imported piece of electronics, sparking a shouting match between them.
The third class are the ones suggested by the montage of black and white photographs which opens the film - a wealthy family owns much of the street, and three generations still live there. The photos are of plantation workers from early and mid-20th Century Brazil, people who would have worked for men like Francisco. Indeed, the film makes the link specific with a visit paid by his Grandson to his crumbling old plantation, setting up the final plot thread, which references a history of exploitation by the ruling classes. Francisco's handsome, spoiled grandchildren are two polarities in the life of the street: Joao, recently returned after years in Germany, works as an estate agent, selling properties for the family; while Dinho is a slacker with criminal impulses.
The plot observes the arrival onto the street of a private security outfit who have noticed that these houses, despite their walls and security cameras, may be somewhat vulnerable. Crime and violence are a topical issue in Brazilian society, and Minho plugs right into that as the working class men wearing "Security" waistcoats ask for a small fee from each family to patrol the area, wielding nightsticks and walkie talkies.
Then the film elliptically traces the comings and goings of a wide cast. This may be Minho's first fiction film, but he has a solid track record in documentaries, and this shows in the level of control over the material he displays. He frames his shots with exacting precision, always emphasising the lines and blocks of the architecture, hemming his characters in, stressing how claustrophobic this world is. There is more than a little Antonioni here, but with a much warmer interest in story and character.
That is not to suggest that Minho is a humanist - Neighbouring Sounds is too off-key and seems too profoundly cynical about the relations between classes for that. Those relations are never less than complex: while Joao's maid scolds and teases him like a mother would, Francisco's maid sneaks off for sex in the house of a neighbour with the boss of the security team and a car-washer keys a woman's car after she offends him. In one scene of sly comedy, the residents of Joao's building discuss sacking their rude Night Doorman and whether or not they can get away without giving him a proper severance.
Perhaps the film's greatest triumph, as suggested by the title, is the extraordinary sound design. If Minho's compositions and use of movement are key in presenting the rigid class barriers which exist in this world, then his soundtrack triumphantly creates an oppressive mood right from the opening scene. There is little music heard here, most of it diegetic. Instead there is the constant sound of Recife; the ceaseless breath of a city, a distant hubbub punctured constantly by noises closer to home. A dog barks ceaselessly, chatter fades in and out, television's sandpaper scratch can be heard, babies wail, cars backfire, shouts echo off the buildings, we hear a football bounce. The world is always there, too close to ignore.
Minho's film, which feels at times like the expert condensing of a tv series down into just over two artful hours, is a masterfully arranged portrayal of just how that world affects some of its inhabitants.