The Brazilian entry in the Oscar foreign-film race, “Neighboring Sounds,” is a social-realism film in content — and a slick thriller in visual style. As filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho explained at TheWrap’s awards series screening Tuesday night, that dichotomy was no accident.
“A lot of the film is very normal and mundane, but because of that, I wanted to shoot the film in a very classic, widescreen, movie-movie style,” Mendoca said in a post-screening Q&A at the Landmark. His approach involved “trying to film very normal situations, using interesting compositions, avoiding handheld camera, and going for a more classic 1970s Roman Polanski/John Carpenter style. That would turn this very personal film into something that, for me anyway, would be more watchable.”
It certainly paid off in the eyes of critics. As The Wrap’s Oscars columnist Steve Pond pointed out during the Q&A, “Neighboring Sounds” made the annual 10 best list of New York Times critic A.O. Scott after it had a brief New York run. Scott picked up on the slick visual suspense tropes in a film that otherwise doesn’t play by Hollywood conventions, saying that “for much of its running time, (it’s) a thriller without a plot … [that offers] the haunting sense that something terrible is always lurking just beyond the frame.”
Yet the paranoia is subtly drawn in a film that often settles on the mundane details of life along one block in the city of Recife after a security team moves in to rid the middle-class area of street crime.
“I think the film is a little bit about a certain state of mind,” Mendonca told Pond. “Brazil is definitely a place where you look over your shoulder many times a day, and most of the time nothing really happens. You can live a perfectly peaceful life in Brazil. But many times there’s a sense of dread and fear that comes from different class relations and the way people seem to fear those who come from lower layers of society.”
Compared to famous Brazilian films like “City of God” that portray violence amid poverty, “Neighboring Sounds” centers mostly around the nation’s rapidly expanding upper middle class and has almost no violence — just the fear of it.
Mendonca was inspired to write the script when a self-styled security team just like the one in the film stopped by asking for a monthly fee … and he actually shot the film on the block where he lives.
“One of the locations is actually my own house — I won’t tell you which! I thought I had made a very local, parochial little film, until I started to show it internationally … But Brazil is like every other country that has issues with social layers and racial relationships.”
And architectural debates, too. On both the real and fictional block, the homes that used to dominate the area are being replaced by high-rises, one by one.
“There is a lot of construction and no real organization, and urbanism is something that is absent. It’s a bit of an urban mess, and I wanted that to be part of the images of the film. One thing I can say is that the taller the building, the safer people seem to feel, because they see gravity as a kind of deterrent to violence. Which is silly, really; people can take elevators and get to the 27th floor.”
The filmmaker didn’t seem out to do a sales pitch on his own hood.
“The neighborhood really is photogenic in the way that I think bad architecture is very photogenic,” Mendonca said, getting a knowing laugh from some Angelenos who’ve seen their own share of modernist architectural decline. “It generates a strange kind of tension when you photograph people against buildings and walls and hallways — especially in this neighborhood where there is a huge concern with security, so you have high walls and steel grates. Everybody sometimes looks like a little mouse trying to make its way through, and that was one of the ideas, to shoot widescreen and show the relationships of people against this kind of aggressive presence of straight lines.”
As Pond pointed out, Mendonca spent 13 years as his city’s leading film critic before brilliantly making a leap into features with “Neighboring Sounds” (following a documentary and a series of shorts). Most who’ve seen this remarkable debut will probably agree that it was actually his mastery of technique, and not inexperience, that caused him to spend 15 months editing this tense but very humanistic ensemble piece.
“I think the whole process is very interesting when you have that much time to make a film,” Mendonca said, asked about the seeming snail’s pace of his editing process. “It’s almost like making bread. When you leave the dough in the oven for some time, it grows.”
Still a critic — or at least a self-critic — he added, “That was a terrible analogy.”