We lovers of cinema are nosy little bastards. It is the medium for the voyeur. We like to watch, truly a “race of Peeping Toms” as “Rear Window” taught us. The Brazilian film “Neighbouring Sounds” is kinda like that Hitchcock masterpiece, in a way. It’s all about observing. It’s the audience and the camera that fills the James Stewart role here, and we’re not wheelchair bound, so we get to see more. Let there be no mistake, though, this is not a thriller or murder mystery. If it’s clear plot you hold dear, or clean and tidy resolution, then look elsewhere.
This film is all about people watching in the best sense. The patient and thoughtful viewer will be rewarded with a funny, realistic slice of life that avoids nearly all of the trappings of the so-called “hyperlink film,” which, to be fair, is not really what this film is. Almost entirely set around a block of Recife, a coastal city in Brazil, it’s a sometimes-meandering mosaic of life there that, like a shy child, refuses to come out and say what it’s about.
After a number of burglaries around a middle class part of town, a private security team is hired to take a bite out of crime. An Altman-esque, sprawling cast is introduced organically, with no one person taking center stage as a protagonist. The setting is the main character. There’s an examination of Brazil’s very clear divide from middle class bourgeois society and the less well-off, but writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho, making his fiction feature debut, isn’t interested in one particular theme.
There’s a well-to-do housewife with two kids who deals with her mundane existence by smoking pot she buys off the water guy. She also can’t sleep because of the neighbors’ constantly barking dog. The wealthy owner of most of the block tries to mediate a conflict between two grandsons, one who probably stole a CD player from the other’s latest fling. It may seem like the film is going nowhere slowly, but Filho shows a deft hand for navigating these brief glimpses of life just happening.
In the film’s best moments, Filho indulges in bite-sized bits of surreal cinema. Take for instance, the housewife getting off by standing a little too close to her shaky dryer, in which her point of view is expressed with blunt veracity mostly through sound design. Or when several characters stand in front of a raging waterfall.
At times, the film even works as a series of genre vignettes. There’s a scene straight out of a horror film that comes out of nowhere, but works quite well, snapping the audience out of their comfort zone at just the right time; moments of domestic drama; a haunting dream sequence in which a young girl imagines a neverending onslaught of invaders jumping the gates of this closed-in, privileged neighborhood. There’s even a twist ending that ties some of these loose story threads together quite nicely, even if it does seem abrupt.
“Neighbouring Sounds” uses the tools of cinema to view life, and never feels the need to impose a reason other than the joy of watching it unfold unencumbered by the strictures of narrative. The film, and the audience, is better for it. [B+]