Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kleber Mendonça Filho | O soma o redor (Neighboring Sounds)

family ties
by Douglas Messerli

Kleber Mendonça Filho (writer and director) O soma o redor (Neighboring Sounds) / 2012

During the opening credits of Kleber Mendonça Filho's first full-length feature film, Neighboring Sounds—a movie I watched yesterday at the Los Angeles Film Festival—we are shown a short visual history of the Brazilian city Recife in the country's Northeastern state of Pernambuco. The large colonial buildings in the middle of nowhere seem to dwarf the native field workers, whose heavy labors obviously made this part of the country rich—particularly for the plantation owners. And we recognize that Recife was created out of that colonial system. Yet nothing is made obvious of that underlying political reality once the film gets way in the modern city of towering skyscrapers. Indeed the film moves forward languidly, posing as in a kind of domestic drama, except that the different domestic situations of the neighbors it explores are so multiple and complex it is hard, at first, to find the film's focus.

     On the first floor of a sizable condominium building is a young woman, Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who is caring for two children alone. Her condo, although pleasant, is clearly middle-class. And the bars over the windows she faces give the place a sense of deep imprisonment. Outside her window sits a guard dog who howls throughout the night, making it difficult to sleep. Throughout the film, Bia attempts to find different ways to quiet the dog, beginning with a piece of beef into which she has inserted a sleeping pill, tossing it to the hungry beast. Later, we discover, she has purchased a dog alarm whose high-pitched sounds quiet animals—and humans. By the end of the film, after her cleaning women has blown the electrical circuit of the dog-quieting device, she purchases firecrackers which so terrifies the poor animal, it runs away in a howl.

      Along the way, we get portraits of her two intelligent children, clearly more mature than their mother, her penchant for pot, and her kinky habit of using her washing machine for sexual stimulation. Without any apparent source of income, except, perhaps, for a boyfriend, she hires tutors, nonetheless, to teach her children Mandarin Chinese and English; she pays for her pot on time; and, as mentioned, is able to afford a cleaning women, as well as a large new flat-screen TV. Her envious sister lives down the block.

     In another, much more comfortable condo in the building, lives João (Gustavo Jahn), a handsome, hirsute real estate broker, seen first in bed with a beautiful woman with whom he has just spent the night. Although it is nothing spectacular, his apartment is much better furnished and has a splendid view. His daily cook and cleaning woman has long been with family (his parents have both died) and is being retired in a few weeks. Mentioned at the breakfast table that his new girlfriend once lived on this same streets, years before, the cleaning woman warns him that she's probably related, they may even be sister and brother, an odd statement at this point in the film, which we let pass since nothing seems to be made of it. When they descend to the street they discover that her car has been broken into, her CD player stolen.

     Throughout the morning, João visits various neighbors and street workers, drinking coffee and chatting with them in an attempt to discover who might have burgled the car. Indirectly, they all seem to suspect a man named Dinho (Yuro Holanda), whom, when João later visits in a nearby building, turns out to be his younger cousin, evidently known for his adolescent delinquencies. Outraged by João's suspicions, Dinho has his maid show him out; but by the time he reaches the street, she has called him, bringing down a wrapped CD which Dinho has handed over. It turns out, later, that the CD is not the same one stolen from the girl's car.

     At another time in this fragmented day, we see João showing an apartment to a potential buyer who has heard that the apartment has been previously owned by a woman who has jumped from its window. She attempts to broker a discount due to that event, João responding, "Look, the incident has no impact on the quality of the place." But we feel somehow something is wrong here. When her young daughter stands alone on the balcony, a young boy throws a soccer ball up to land several stories below her, demanding she get it and return it to him. Nothing has openly happened, but there is something eerie about the situation and the neighborhood in general, if nothing else because of seemingly dissociation of the director's various narrative strands.

     And then there are all those neighborhood noises: the dog, rain, a peddler's loud music, the cars, the sounds of love-making, the children at play, and the hundreds of voices. When a neighborhood woman, coming out to retrieve her car, speaks rudely to one of the car washers, he takes a key to the back end of her automobile as she drives off. In a strange condo meeting of João's building, the tenants discuss firing their lobby night watchman, who has worked in the building for fourteen years, because he has been sleeping on the job. João insists they pay him a pension, but the others are outraged. He is only too happy to escape the "weird condo meeting" to meet up once again with the girl he has spent the previous night.

     More significantly, men have shown up, clapping out various neighbors (although the residents all have protective cameras, many do not have doorbells) to sell their services as security guards. Even their sales pitch sounds more like a threat than a commitment to the safety of the community; yet, after their visit to the wealthiest man in the neighborhood, Francisco (W. J. Solha)—who we soon discover is João and Dinho's grandfather, a man who once owned the entire street—the old man convinces the neighborhood to hire them. Perhaps they will help prevent further car thefts. Pitching a small rain shelter, Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and his friends spend the nights on the streets, where every sound seems to create suspense.

      Filho juggles all of these seemingly unrelated events with deadpan earnestness, offering us few clues to the significance of his several characters and even less help with evaluating their actions. The director has structured his film, however, in three parts: "Guard Dog, Security Guards, and Body Guards." Gradually, we begin see that something is indeed wrong with this picture of normalcy. So much of these individuals' lives are centered around protection and the people, the poor and racially mixed figures, from whom they are protecting themselves, that we begin to comprehend that something in this world is truly amiss: issues of security and protection, along with their relations to their cleaners, cooks, and other servants have come to dominate their lives. Unlike São Paulo and Rio de Janiero, where almost every substantial apartment building and home contains a small security tower (I personally observed these on my visits to Brazil), Recife is relatively new to these intrusions. Yet it is clear how much of an impact these changes have had on all the neighbor's quality of living.

     What we also soon perceive is that many of these neighbors are members of Francisco's wealthy family, their money accrued from the plantations earlier in the century that Filho has shown us during the credits. When João and his girlfriend pay a weekend visit to Francisco in his plantation home, they investigate the various now-decaying plantation buildings constructed and established by the work of poor natives, revealing to us, through dream-like images—alternating between the peaceful present and a brutal past. At one moment when the three—Francesco, his grandson and João's lover—bathe together in the white frothy water of a falls, the clear liquid suddenly turns into blood.

     As the movie moves forward, moreover, the fears of these neighbors grow more and more intense despite the fact that little else happens. A car shows up on the street, driving erratically slow, creating a tense sense of drama, which ends with a kind of comic coda as a woman exits to vomit. More significantly, Bia's daughter has a terrible dream wherein, in the middle of the night, hundreds of men jump over the wall, one by one, into her back yard. When she gets up to check the intrusion, her mother and her bed have disappeared. Just as the needs of security have risen, so the fears of intrusion have increased. João's beloved girlfriend leaves him; she has sensed there is a sadness about the place.

      Clodoaldo, meanwhile, has become a trusted member of the neighborhood, given a key to water a vacationing neighbor's plants. In that all-white house (symbol of the divide financially and racially between the haves and the have-nots) he steals in with Francesco's maid to have sex. João comes home to his apartment to find the maid's son sleeping on his couch. Unspoken racial boundaries, as Filho has observed in an interview, are clearly being breached.

     A foreman of Francesco's plantation has been found murdered, and Francisco calls Clodoaldo, demanding a meeting. When Clodaldo and his brother show up to Francesco's well-protected house, he tells them of his fears, offering them a position as body guards along with their security positions. Presumably in an attempt to understand the old man's relationship with the victim, they turn the tables, revealing that they have paid a visit to his old foreman. They name a date from long ago which is meaningless to Francesco until he realizes through their names, that they are the children, now grown, of a worker or servant who, evidently, his foreman has killed.

     Suddenly, the bits and pieces of the lives Filho has been showing us, fall into place. Francesco stands up in terror just as the film suddenly snaps into the view outside Bia's condo where she and the children set off the firecrackers in order to terrify the dog. The film ends in an explosion of sound, the screen going black.

     One might describe Filho's film as a kind of laidback Brazilian version of The Godfather, wherein the sins of the grandfather are visited upon his family, friends, and even neighbors who help to maintain his closed, isolated world. Certainly, as João suggests, family ties can just as often make one desire to be an orphan.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2012

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