In Brazil, a Noisy, Tense Prosperity
Kleber Mendonça Filho Directs ‘Neighboring Sounds’
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: August 17, 2012
BARKING dogs and a crying baby. Maids and housekeepers calling to each other through the air shaft of an apartment building. The echo of samba music on the radio and soccer matches on television. The faint murmur of the sea in the background, and in the foreground, the incessant clatter of construction: the pounding of hammers, the churning of cement mixers, the screeching of circular saws.
Victor Jucá/Cinema Guild
Victor Jucá/Cinema Guild
That is the soundtrack of daily life in Brazil’s big cities these days, the inevitable accompaniment of an economic boom. But that cacophony also served as inspiration for the director Kleber Mendonça Filho, who decided to give his first feature film, a winner of prizes at festivals in Europe and the United States, the enigmatic title “Neighboring Sounds.”
“We’re at a very curious moment right now in Brazil,” Mr. Mendonça said in an interview in New York this spring, where his film was shown as part of the New Directors/New Films series. “There’s a lot of money, which means building things. And to build things in most cases means demolishing other things, which in turn stimulates my generation of directors and artists to say something about all of that.”
“Neighboring Sounds,” which opens Friday, is set in the northern coastal city of Recife, Brazil’s fifth-largest metropolis, in a middle-class enclave whose newly prospering residents are buying flat-screen televisions and Audis or arranging private English and Chinese lessons for their children. But they worry about crime, and when a private security firm comes knocking, they eagerly sign on.
A single family with extensive landholdings in both the city and the nearby countryside dominates the neighborhood, though, and the patriarch, an old-fashioned autocrat named Francisco, doesn’t want to cede any control. What results is a collision of the past and the future in an uneasily fluid present.
Francisco is played by the novelist and actor Waldemar Solha, whose luxuriant white beard and commanding bearing gave him the perfect look for the role. Mr. Solha, 71, was in Recife for the premiere of an opera whose libretto he had written when the film’s casting director, Daniel Aragão, approached him, addressing him as “Hey, Francisco,” which immediately made him curious to read the script.
“I know guys like Francisco from having lived long stretches out in the backlands,” Mr. Solha said. “In the 1960s, I worked in a bank out there, in an area full of hired gunmen, and they’d come into the bank like they owned the place. I thought my career as an actor was over, but when I saw this script, I went crazy for it.”
Francisco’s foil is Clodoaldo, the seemingly deferential head of the security team that sets up on a street corner, changing the dynamics of life in the neighborhood. Like Mr. Solha, Irandhir Santos, who plays Clodoaldo, is a native of northeast Brazil accustomed to what he called “the perverse logic” of the region’s history of social oppression.
“Certain aspects of that logic have simply been transferred from the sugar mills to these tall apartment buildings,” Mr. Santos said. “Instead of wire fences to ensure the separation of classes, you’ve got security cameras and guards, and that transposition is what motivated me to help Kleber tell this story.”
Mr. Mendonça said that the class tensions that underpin the central conflicts in “Neighboring Sounds” came directly from his own job experience. At one firm, he recalled, the owner acted just like a typical “colonel,” the term used to describe the bosses who have dominated life in northeastern Brazil since colonial times.
“There we were, in a modern company, with computers and everything, but the mentality that made the place function, the generalized lack of respect, was like that of a plantation owner talking to his cane cutters,” he said. “This was the son of a traditional family, a person who can be considered sophisticated but at the same time is brutal and rustic. So the film comes precisely from this union of the modern and the archaic.”
Though “Neighboring Sounds” has a lush, vibrant look, in keeping with its tropical setting, and a sophisticated, subtle sound design, it is in some ways literally a home movie. Not only did Mr. Mendonça shoot most of the scenes on the block where he lives, but one home in the movie is his own apartment.
In addition, cast members were lodged in a hotel just a few blocks away, immersing them round-the-clock in the situation the film portrays. “The whole neighborhood is a construction site,” said Gustavo Jahn, who plays Francisco’s somewhat passive grandson João, a real estate agent. “Even in my hotel room I’d hear noise all around me and sense the presence of many layers of sound.”
For most of his adult life, Mr. Mendonça, 43, has been a film critic for the main daily newspaper in his home city, and has also organized film festivals. Over the last decade he has also made several award-winning shorts, like “Recife Frio” and “Eletrodomestica,” that address some issues also raised in “Neighboring Sounds.”
Mr. Mendonça said that some of the credit for his questioning view of social niceties should go to the film’s producer, Emilie Lesclaux, who also happens to be his wife. Ms. Lesclaux, 31, went to Brazil a decade ago to work in the cultural section of the French consulate in Recife, fell in love with Mr. Mendonça and the country at the same time, yet even now finds herself puzzled by some local customs.
“Being married to a Frenchwoman, it’s not that this isn’t something I didn’t see before,” he said, “but being with her in ordinary life is really interesting, because she has non-Brazilian reactions to some aspects of Brazilian life, and that make me snap my fingers and say ‘This is interesting, it’s something strong’ ” and worth examining.
One example, a theme that runs throughout the movie, is the unusually casual and seemingly affectionate relationship between servants, most of whom are black, and their employers, almost all of whom are white. João even plants a tender kiss on the neck of his housekeeper, who regularly brings her children to his apartment, and engages her in the kind of banter a mother and son might have.
“When Kleber and I first came together and I met his housekeeper, who had cared for him when he was a child, I was wondering who exactly is this woman and what is their relationship?” Ms. Lesclaux recalled. “I felt jealousy, like I was an interloper. It was a very Brazilian situation.”
Over the last 18 years, Brazil has enjoyed a spurt of growth that has allowed it to zoom past Britain, Italy, Russia and Canada to become the world’s sixth largest economy, a process that has propelled tens of millions of Brazilians into the middle class. “Neighboring Sounds” may be the first major Brazilian film that directly takes as its main subject that transformation and its consequences.
From the time of the politically conscious Cinema Novo movement of the early 1960s through “City of God” a decade ago, the Brazilian films that have had the best reception abroad are those that have focused on social problems like poverty, violence and racism. The director Glauber Rocha even advocated what he called an “aesthetic of hunger” as a response to Hollywood values.
Mr. Mendonça said he greatly admired Cinema Novo films. But he said the time had arrived for a different approach, one that addresses the concerns of a country that has become predominantly middle class.
“Brazilian film has to break the mold,” he said, adding that “99 percent of Brazilian filmmakers are middle class or upper middle class or bourgeois, as I am, yet most of the time they’re making films about people they don’t know that much about and subjects they haven’t mastered. We need more films that don’t take place in a favela or the backlands and aren’t about some guy who is really poor and living beneath a bridge. Maybe then we can talk about a new Brazilian aesthetic.”