The Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has made a haunting and enigmatic feature debut in Neighbouring Sounds. For much of its running time it plays like a weird soap opera without a plot. Set in the middle-class suburb of Recife on the northeastern coast of Brazil, it casually depicts routines of humdrum domestic life that nevertheless imply some sinister meaning beneath. What it is will not be revealed until almost the last scene.
A young mother of two (Meve Jinkings) has sleepless nights from a snoring husband and the incessant barking of a neighbour's dog; estate agent Joao (Gustavo Jahn) takes his new girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown) on trips around ruined houses, soon to be swept away by the coming flood of development; and a new home-patrol team led by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) moves into the neighbourhood, offering security – though not exactly assurance – to a paranoid class of people who sense their loosening grip on power.
Mendonça has a keen eye for the architectural mix of the city, part-slum, part-highrise, a geometry of verticals and right angles that seem to confine space as much as all the grilles, gates, fences and security doors confine people. Even more evocative of unease is the layering of sound, which, as the title indicates, is a persistent presence: sirens, drills, hurrying footsteps and bumps create an ambient hum designed to isolate the characters within their environment. In a daring moment of surrealism, Joao and Sofia visit an abandoned cinema and hear the ghostly screams of forgotten horror movies. The mosaic of interwoven stories could use a few old-fashioned jolts itself. While Mendonça never loses our interest, his film occasionally feels becalmed, drifting about these private lives in search of an angle and not quite finding it. Or rather, finding and withholding it: a late confrontation scene leads us right to the brink of violence before the screen cuts to a family setting off fireworks. Talk about teasing your audience.