Sounds Dangerous

in 12nd T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival

by Alison Frank

Set in a middle-class urban residential neighbourhood in Brazil, Neighbouring Sounds (O som ao redor, 2012) focuses on the lives of a handful of anxious inhabitants. There is a family with two kids: their aunt lives nearby but gets into physical fights with their mother when they cross paths. There is João, a young, single real estate agent whose father and grandfather live in the same street and own most of the property in the area. In spite of the family’s privileged background, João’s cousin has a reputation for stealing car stereos. Then, there are the passing inhabitants of the neighbourhood: working class people who serve the middle class families. João has a regular housekeeper, and the grandfather’s has a maid who sneaks out to meet her boyfriend, one of a handful of unlikely private security guards who offer their services to the street.

Director Kleber Mendonça Filho presents a portrait of contemporary Brazilian city life that is not just engaging but subtly gripping. To maintain the trappings of everyday reality, he incorporates amusing vignettes from daily life: the mother’s never-ending battle with the neighbour’s noisy dog, João’s maid teasing him about his love life, the elderly security guard caught snoozing on his night shifts. But an unnerving sense of threat forms a constant undercurrent in these characters’ lives. Certainly, the film features a few petty thefts: a little boy is caught climbing a tree to steal fruit, and João’s girlfriend’s car stereo disappears overnight (while the car window is politely left on one side, intact). More often, it is a case of threat by association, the feeling of a close call, or a premonition of impending disaster. In an amusing but telling example, João shows an apartment to a prospective buyer, who nervously hurries away when she finds out that there has been a suicide in the building (but not before sounding him out for a discount). In another example, João’s grandfather goes swimming alone at night in a choppy ocean, where a sign warns of potential shark attacks (he returns unscathed). The mother of another family backs her car up carelessly and bursts a boy’s ball without even noticing (it could just as easily have been the little boy, who stands some metres away, dismayed).

The feeling of threat is also evoked formally. As the title implies, sound is an important element: the booming noises that accompany every cut in the opening soundtrack, the screaming of a saw as a man cuts through metal pipes and, in a little girl’s nightmare, the thudding noise of an endless series of invaders jumping the fence into her family’s garden. Visually, too, there is a feeling of danger: extreme low—angle shots make high—rise apartments appear to loom threateningly; a car backs up into the camera lens, nearly hitting it; the grandfather can’t stroll down the street in the evening without motion—detector security lights fixing him in their blinding glare. Given the film’s atmosphere of menace, extreme close—ups of characters’ faces appear intimate but also invasive—the camera is cast as an unknown quantity, and is too close for comfort.

This unease with intimacy is present in the characters most intimate relationships: João’s seemingly successful relationship with his girlfriend comes to an abrupt end for no clear reason; his cousin is on the brink of violence when accused of stealing; the mother has a secret drug habit which gradually forces her children to take on more responsibility at home. If the characters feel a degree of isolation from their friends and relations, they are even more estranged from their neighbours. João’s more affluent family never interacts with the more modest family, and although maids and security guards are admitted into the homes of João or his grandfather, where they sometimes witness intimate aspects of their lives, there is a clear, long—standing social difference that separates these characters. João is certainly more friendly and understanding towards the staff than his grandfather, but his attitude still borders on paternalistic.

Constantly watchful, the residents of the neighbourhood live their lives largely confined to apartments and courtyards, shut in by fences and walls intended to protect them from forces of violence which are unseen and, in the main, imagined. The audience shares the characters’ anxiety, through the film’s tense atmosphere, developed both narratively and stylistically. But the irony of this pervasive effect is that no notable violent acts appear on screen. The only attack takes place against just one character, off—screen and cut short by the end of the film. As foreshadowed by the mysterious sepia—toned photos from the film’s opening, rather than being the result of urban poverty, this attack avenges an act of violence inflicted by the ruling class on the underclass, in a near—feudal rural past. The violence effectively originates with the most powerful members of society, who in turn feel the most need to protect themselves from violence.

Alison Frank