August 21, 2012

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The once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction. -W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants

The setting of Kleber Mendonca Filho’s extraordinary debut feature Neighboring Sounds (opening on 8/24 in NYC) is not a resort, but the aging apartment blocks and flimsy, sprouting condominium towers of Recife, Brazil that bear similar scars of overdevelopment. The seemingly haphazard urban planning has the upwardly mobile middle class living on top of and among the blue collars who serve them. Filha’s film presents the neighborhood of Setubal as a series of constant intrusions, from the minor annoyances of a yapping guard dog and a stolen car stereo to the unsettling history of the area’s industrialist/colonialist past leaking into the present. The social contract in Setubal is built on as uneasy a ground as the swiftly built condos. As in Sebald’s description of a depopulated Deauville in The Emigrants, the whole town seems on the verge of collapse, haunted by the ghosts of its lost wealth. Yet all of this is subtext, woven into the comic-melancholic fabric of the neighborhood’s everyday routines.

The central node in this multi-character drama is Joao (Gustavo Jahn), a sluggish real-estate agent whose grandfather Francisco Oliveira (W.J. Solha) used to own all the land in town, his fortune made from a now decrepit sugarcane farm. Most of the land has been sold off to developers, with the neighborhood becoming a mix of gentrifying professionals and the old working class, mostly of African descent, hanging on in their yet-to-be leveled apartment buildings. One of them is Bia (Meve Jinkings), an insomniac middle-class mom driven mad by that barking dog, and who tries to stay sane with copious amounts of weed. Preying on fears of a violent underclass, a private security company led by glad-handing Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) wins a contract to patrol the streets. Clodoaldo and his crew slowly embed themselves into the town before he reveals his true, secret purpose.

The opening carefully sets up the clashes that will follow. The first images show B&W still images of Recife, of beauty queens and farmers, before a cut to the present and a low-angle tracking shot that follows a boy and girl wheel their way through a parking garage and onto a teeming condo playground. The photos show the faces that were displaced in order to make way for this luxuriant leisure, but a reaction shot shows it to be an ongoing process, as the boy curiously stares at a construction worker sanding off the rough edges of a window frame.

This is the first of many shots of frames-within-frames which throw the working and middle classes in uneasy equilibrium. In one time-traveling sequence, one of Francisco’s maids is shown changing in a doorway, transforming from a starched maid out of the 1950s into a sexually aggressive halter-topped woman of present day. Another, more depressing instance occurs when Joao is showing a mother and daughter a new apartment. The daughter wanders to the balcony and stares at a barefoot boy playing soccer in an alley below.  The boy is centered and enclosed in the alley. He kicks the ball over the fence and asks for her to return it in vain. The mother pulls her away before she can help. They depart, and there is a jarring cut to the ball bouncing back down the alley. Presumably Joao returned it, although that is left ambiguously.

Joao’s character makes pains to be friendly with the help, acting warm and flirtatious with his lifelong  maid Maria (her family is always hanging out at his place), and defending  his building’s doorman after the co-op meeting wishes to throw him out. His actions are cosmetic, with his character too apathetic to do anything so bold as give someone a promotion, or even a raise. He is caught between his family’s feudal past and his eagerness to be a young bourgeois liberal, with all the indolent self-righteousness that requires. This whole conflict comes to a head in the moodily elegiac sequence when he takes his equally affectless girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown) to the sugar mill, a dilapidated relic of his family’s exploitative past. And yet it is a beautiful and seductive place, their lives slowing down to a crawl as they laze about in hammocks and waterfalls, channeling the leisure of centuries past. They wander through the decaying factory cinema, acting out hypothetical scenes for an audience long dead and gone, just like the plantation and its way of life. The sound design, which is intricately stunning throughout, is especially spare here, the score reduced to a bass-heavy thrum, and the background  noise rising until it subsumes its Joao, Francisco and Sofia in the same beneficent tones their ancestors must have heard, a brief illusion of time, and power, regained.

The images of the sugar mill are those of pervasive decay, recalling another line from The Emigrants, of one Dr. Abramsky who yearned for the destruction of his long-shuttered mental hospital, which housed so many brutalized victims of electroshock: “Nowadays I place all my hope in the mice, and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse.” This will be the fate of the mill – and of Francisco and Joao’s family, indirectly caused by the intervention of Clodoaldo – a kind of vengeful spectre from their fabled past. The only character not weighed down by this history  is Francisco’s maid, who in her off-hand costume change was able to slough off the past and stride toward the future with a brazen confidence.

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