In movie thrillers, as opposed to the real-estate market, it may be that dislocation is everything. And rarely have the connections between property development and dread been so well-captured as in Neighbouring Sounds, the subtle, hair-raising debut from young Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho. Economically packed with social issues of wealth, property and class, and deft cinematic references, this is a movie built for the modern global high-rise condo market.
The script follows a group of characters living in the kind of buildings that are derisively referred to as “cocaine towers” in Latin America. The setting is the booming city of Recife, on the north-eastern bump of Brazil, set in a high-rise development surrounded by security cameras, where the residents live in cookie-cutter, open-concept apartments with flat-screen TVs, floor-to-ceiling windows and narrow corridors, stacked atop each other like hatchlings in incubator boxes.
As an acerbic social study, Filho’s film evokes both Robert Altman and Luis Bunuel, but it is also filled with its own flavour of dread. Much of that derives from the insinuating sound design, referred to in the film’s title. Off-screen, we hear the constant rattle of construction work, sirens, children’s screams, unidentified footsteps. As in all wealthy enclaves, there’s a particular emphasis on security from invaders: The movie is divided into chapters titled Guard Dogs, Night Guards and Body Guards. With so much protection around, something bad must be about to happen.
Most of the dozen-plus characters here are well-off, though there’s a separate society of maids, security guards and delivery men who cater to the residents’ needs. (This is the sort of place where a condo with maid’s quarters seems to be included in the base package.) The relationships between masters and servants are collegial, even familial, which makes the sudden moments of cruelty all the more startling. Maids are sharply reprimanded, sometimes in front of their children, as if they were children themselves. An aging servant is suddenly replaced by her daughter; the condo board debates whether to fire their aging security man without severance, after one of the tenants’ kids videotapes the old man napping.
The recurring protagonist is a handsome, mild-natured Joao (Gustavo Jahn), a wealthy scion of the family that built the development, who has returned from Europe and is now working in his grandfather’s business as a property agent. Early on, we see Joao waking up in his condo with a girl he hooked up with the night before, Sofia (Irma Brown), who grew up in the neighbourhood before it went vertical. Shortly after they wake, the maid arrives with her grandchildren in tow – their mother had a doctor’s appointment. The kids watch cartoons while grandma jokes and prepares the lovers’ breakfasts.
After breakfast, Joao takes Sofia back to her car where they discover her side window has been removed and her CD player stolen. Joao, concerned about disappointing his new potential girlfriend, makes it his mission to find out who is responsible. He interrogates a couple of local guys he sees washing a car and gets annoyed when they seem to be playing dumb. That’s because all of them suspect the same person, Joao’s trouble-prone cousin, Dinho (Yuri Holanda).
Joao’s grandfather, Francisco (W.J. Solha), a powerful patriarch who suggests the character of Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, made his fortune in sugar-cane plantations before moving into real estate. He now lives in one of the condo boxes with his maid, ruling his empire via his cellphone.
When a slick private-security salesman, Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), shows up on the block selling a group deal for street protection, they know they must first get Francisco’s approval. He gives it to them, with the warning that they leave Dinho alone. Soon, the neighbours chip in, paying a few dollars a month to have what appears to be a pointless street patrol. The security guards, who sit talking in a tent protected from the rain, wear quasi-military uniforms. In the film’s first half, their most taxing job is to help a confused party-goer find his way back to the condo that he just left.
Joao’s work, too, seems casual: A woman and her daughter come to see a unit. “It looks like a factory,” says the woman. The potential buyer tries to bargain him down because she heard a woman threw herself off the balcony to her death and wants a discount for the “negative energy.” Joao rejects her pitch: “This place isn’t haunted,” he assures her.
Later, after closing a deal with another buyer, he finds a loose nut on a terrace and thoughtfully pockets it. Did something break loose?
The most unhappy resident is Beatriz (Maeve Jinkings), a sultry, bored mother of two children who are doing extra classes in Mandarin and English to assure their future. She takes pleasure from her household machines: When the kids are away, she gets pot from the water delivery man and exhales the fumes into her vacuum cleaner. Then she presses herself against the vibrating washing machine.
Beatriz’s great source of torment in life is a Weimaraner guard dog in the courtyard below. The neighbours leave it out at night, where it howls piteously. She drugs it by putting her sleeping pills in a piece of raw meat, blasts Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love to drown it out, and later, imports a high-frequency siren to torment the creature.
Neighbouring Sounds is a deceptively understated film that keeps ratcheting up the tension through details and suggestive moments as Filho, the archetypal director as puppet-master, quietly lays down the clues that show how the alienation of the present has its roots in the past.
In the film's extraordinary third act, Joao and Sophia go with the grandfather, Francisco, to the old man’s country place in the mountains, next to a crumbling ghost town near the old plantation site. What happened here? We never exactly know, but the result was devastation. There’s a scene where all three of them shower under a waterfall, yelling in the freezing water with the sheer intensity of the experience. After, they return to the city and their disturbingly safe boxes in the sky, to await the next step in their fates.