OVER A FENCE
THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED IN NEIGHBORING SOUNDS
an essay by an essay by james quandt

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS [dvd]
Impressionistic social fresco and enigmatic political allegory, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds resembles Lucrecia Martel’s masterpiece The Headless Woman in its portrait of masters whose solicitude toward servants quickly shades into class condescension, and of an insular bourgeoisie that has repressed its country’s recent violent history, expunging the past by burying or building over it. (Martel’s governing metaphor involves archeology and amnesia, Mendonça’s architecture; i.e., the proliferation of high rises built over demolished neighborhoods.) Though contemporary in setting, Sounds begins in the past and ends there. A montage of black-and-white photographs initiates the film, period images of sugar cane field workers, exploited camponeses who may or may not have included Antonio, Clodoaldo’s father. We can only guess at which class Antonio belonged to, or at the nature of his unhappy fate, which occurred, as his embittered son reports at film’s end, on April 27, 1984. That year marked the last of the two-decade reign of torture and anti-Communist terror by the military regime that ruled Brazil before the advent of democracy so seems, in this intricately onstructed film, not insignificant. Whatever happened in 1984 involved Francisco Oliveira, the plantation owner who has since transformed into the affable white-maned patriarch of the street in Recife where the film takes place, most of which he owns. Though he appears content to while away his dotage in an art-and-objet filled aerie, Francisco continues to exert his power as an imperious senhor de engenho, pulling strings, for instance, to shield his criminal grandson inho. (The latter’s extraordinary paleness is one of the film’s subtle signifiers of Brazil’s racial history and its configuration in class hierarchy.) What Francisco did to Antonio three decades before is left unstated, but from that ellipsis emerges a metaphor. The security team that imposes itself upon the film’s uneasy enclave pledges protection but harbors a plan for incursion, in which events of the past will rupture the “peace of mind” promised to the oblivious citizens. The repressed returns as vendetta.

“Over a fence,” the phrase uttered at the end of Neighboring Sounds, packs a history of violence into its oblique and ominous brevity. Three simple words hang in the suddenly threatening air, their accusative but ambiguous and somewhat unparseable meaning—does “over” serve as preposition or adverb?—indicating the film’s portentous, withholding approach. Throughout Sounds’ triptych, each of the three parts tellingly named after a kind of guard, repeated words (orphan, security), isolated images (a close-up of a metal nut italicized by a combo tilt-zoom-rack shot), and visual motifs (locks, grilles, bars and grates especially) imply a world of intrusion, apprehension, and territoriality, turning innocuous objects and casual incidents into portents of menace. Beneath the everyday sounds of pervasive construction, incessant dog barks, music-spewing street vendors, and ragtag soccer matches, director Mendonça layers a subliminal thrum of anxiety so that, like the prosperous but paranoid residents of the community he portrays, the director’s on-edge audience constantly anticipates catastrophe. The very word “fence” suggests another of the many barricades and enclosures in the film, demarcations of terrain breached only by the servants or delivery men who ferry water, dope, dry cleaning or televisions into the white-walled sanctums of apartment buildings named Vivaldi, Camille Claudel, Windsor Castle—refinement defined by European culture, even as children take Chinese lessons to maintain their advantage in a global economy. (Class relations are such in this precinct of Recife that the comparative size of a flat-screen TV—forty inches versus a mere thirty-two—incites one of Sounds’ few occasions of actual violence, when an incensed Betânia attacks her put-upon, dopesmoking sister Bia.)

Much as he admires the leftist Cinema Novo of the sixties, Mendonça urges a new aesthetic for Brazilian film that reflects his country’s growing prosperity and the middle or upper class origins of most of its directors. As attentive to race and class as Neighboring Sounds is, its setting—the upscale, sequestered Setubal district, where Mendonça himself lives—lies far, as Dinho manically insists to Clodoaldo, from the favela, the impoverished locale favored by filmmakers who adhere to Cinema Novo master Glauber Rocha’s “aesthetics of hunger.” Mendonça’s widescreen images, composed to incorporate as much environment as possible, emphasize the “landscape of straight lines and right angles,” the “dehumanized” city of relentless high rise development lamented by the narrator of Mendonça’s early mockumentary short "Cold Tropics". That João, the most conventionally decent bourgeois in Sounds, sells real estate, including properties owned by his powerful grandfather, complicates our sense of his integrity. (Nothing in this film is what it first appears; even the stolen CD player turns out to be the wrong one.) João’s casual mention of a maid’s room with a window during a sales pitch recalls the discussion of “this Brazilian architectural phenomenon” in 'Cold Tropics," where the stifling, usually windowless service area where the maid dwells is described as “a legacy from slavery, a ghost of the senzala era.” In Mendonça’s cinema, every space comes socially coded.

A film critic and programmer, Mendonça reveals a greater debt to the nouvelle vague than to Cinema Novo in his sometimes flaunty compendia of shots and edits—tilt, travelling, dissolve, rack, follow, zoom (fast and slow), Steadycam, fade, insert, close-up, match, tracking (lateral and not)—and his occasional homage to previous cinema. (One wonders if the half-hidden poster for Jackie Brown in Dinho’s bedroom counts as salute or assault, given the nature of its owner.) Certain visuals verge on the self-conscious, such as the “rhyming”via an edit of a skyline of apartment towers with a table top of liquor bottles, or Mendonça’s swiveling division of the Scope frame into two adjacent spaces, once early on when a naked João and Sofia try to evade Maria and the children, again later when the camera parks at the wall dividing Bia and family eating dinner in the right side of the frame from a meal being shown on television in left frame. Mendonça also transposes details and incidents from his previous short films. Much of the portrayal of Bia is lifted holus from Eletrodoméstica, including the name of her precocious son Nelsinho and her use of the washing machine’s vigorous spin cycle as masturbatory aid. And the narrator’s description of a futuristic Recife in "Cold Tropics" certainly prefigures the city we encounter in Sounds: “Even before the climate changed, Recife had already developed a paralyzing fear of violence, and a taste for the ugly and aggressive urbanism common to Latin American cities.” That “paralyzing fear” turns Neighboring Sounds’ inhabitants into spies and voyeurs: the night is rife with intruders, people furtively lurk to eavesdrop and observe, while others monitor surveillance feed or surreptitiously capture footage, like the “shocking scenes of negligence” that the boy Diego proffers on his computer in the campaign to fire Agenor, the
drowsy doorman.

One of the film’s more symbolic objects is a soccer ball that ends up punctured and deflated when Bia accidentally runs over it with her car. The accident registers with her watchful daughter, but not with the heedless driver. Like the campesino Vero may or may not have hit and killed in The Headless Woman, the boy with the ball in Neighboring Sounds does not count because he does not belong to the world that matters, the Setubal so obsessed with its own segurança that its vigilance becomes a kind of oblivion.

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James Quandt is Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, where he has curated several internationally touring retrospectives, including those dedicated to Naruse, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Imamura, Ichikawa, and, most recently, Oshima. A regular contributor to Artforum magazine, Quandt has also edited monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

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