By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Critics are kind of like teachers. “Those who cannot do, teach”, or in this case, “Those who cannot do, write a bunch of hivemind nonsense that all sounds the same, unless you’re a clear crazy person like Armond White or Rex (how does he still have a job?) Reed.” That’s the reputation, anyway, at least if you talk to the sour grapes-spewing Armie Hammers and Jerry Bruckheimers of the world.
In actuality, the history of critics putting their money where their mouth is and actually making a movie is a long, storied one. When thusly challenged, Francois Truffaut gave us The 400 Blows, perhaps the greatest coming of age film ever (plus plenty of other classics). Peter Bogdanovich is another great who started out writing, and even Ebert got in on the act.
And this is what happened.
Neighboring Sounds is Brazilian film critic Kleber Mendonca Filho’s attempt to enter that hallowed company. In it he tells a story of the Recife neighborhood that he himself lives in, with its regular people, their joys and discontents, the shared history that weaves them together, and the ambient noises that fill their lives.
I realize that that’s far from an inspiring summary, but this film is difficult to describe or categorize, and that may beits greatest strength. Filho set out to make a portrait of his neighborhood, and uses every tool at his disposal. This is an immaculately and impressively made film, with gorgeous, inventively framed cinematography by Pedro Sotero, a propulsive score by DJ Dolores, and a muscular, immersive sound design that often takes center stage, provided by Filho himself.
The acting is also excellent, especially as putting off a realistic, cinema verite approach with professional actors is much more difficult than it sounds. In particular, Ana Rita Gurgel’s bored, doped-up, and washing machine-satisfied housewife and Caio Almeida’s out of touch heir apparent to the block’s elderly landlord godfather get a lot of scenery to chew.
Brazilian Mark Duplass loves him some scene-chewin’
What’s particularly laudable about this film is how Filho’s lets the environment be the story, only attempting to layer in something resembling a plot later (as well as a theme- in this case, a sense of mounting suburban dread and middle-class paranoia). The film has a lived-in feel that lulls you into a sense of comfort, then gives an added force when Filho wants to punch home a point.
As much as I admire the fact that Filho’s trying to do something different, and largely succeeding, 130 minutes is an awful long time to meander without much of a plot. He achieves what he’s going for early on, and I have to think this could have been 20 or 30 minutes shorter and accomplished the same thing.
Later on, Filho leaves the realism behind a bit and begins to add unsettling touches like waterfalls of blood and home invasion nightmares that feel like they’re finally building the film towards some sort of climax… and then the film ends. There’s a suggestion of violence and history there that is striking at first, but when you think about it for a minute, feels unearned and out of character with the rest of the film.
Neighboring Sounds is like candy for those with an art-film sweet-tooth, but will likely confound other audiences. It’s easy to appreciate its craftsmanship, but ultimately difficult to see how Filho intended for it to come together.
Take a Drink: whenever you spot a “rich vs. poor” distinction or comparison
Take a Drink: every time ambient noise becomes the focus of a scene
Take a Drink: whenever crime occurs or is discussed
Take a Drink: whenever the dog is howling
Do a Shot: for that kid’s shit soccer ball luck