City of God, minus the guns

Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor) is a new type of Brazilian film, a social commentary with no guns, no blood, no corpses, nearly no favelas and no weeping and wailing. It might also be a story about a new Brazil.

The film’s gripping opening sequence shows us a montage of aged black and white photographs of Brazilian peasants and their masters. Worn, leathered faces peer out with untrusting eyes, frozen in time in parched countryside. A crescendo of percussion instruments – Boom-BOOM-Boom-BOOM – grows louder, louder, louder, until the still images break into the film proper, and the viewer finds himself in a completely different universe, following a girl on pink roller blades, plastic wheels click-clacking on the surface of a brand new car park. She skates into a fenced playground at the top of a residential high rise. It’s crowded with children, and alongside them, uniformed adults whose faces are recognisably similar to those in the faded portraits of the opening sequence.

These are the modern serving classes: the nannies, cleaners, cooks, porters and security guards who maintain the lifestyles of the fortunate. Neighbouring Sounds tells the story of two families who live a few blocks from the sea in Recife, in this claustrophobic world of jagged high rises, right angles and barred windows. The upwardly mobile Bia (Maeve Jinkings), a frustrated housewife, is at war with the neighbour’s dog. She staves off frustration with large doses of marijuana, in between shuttling her children to and from Chinese and English lessons. A second, richer, family is represented by João (Gustavo Jahn), a sympathetic, handsome late twenty-something who manages the many flats on the street owned by his grandfather. Their lives chug along, with the support of an army of servants. While João begins an affair with Sofia (Irma Brown), and attempts to rent out a flat in a building where floral tributes stand as reminders of a recent suicide, Bia takes delivery of a 40” plasma TV, and, in the film’s most violent scene, is attacked and punched about the head, inexplicably, by a female neighbour (who only receives a 32” TV).

The great Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro wrote that the proto-cell and definitive matrix of Brazil, Brazilians and Brazilian life, originated from the social structure organised around the sugar mills, which date back to the seventeenth century. The senhor was the governor of the lives of all those who worked and lived there: those of his own family, the mill workers, and of course, the slaves.

After João and Sofia visit his grandfather Seu Francisco (W.J Solha), in the countryside, at the decayed former sugar mill he still owns, the underlying tension and unease running through the film escalates into an atmosphere of pure menace. Bia’s daughter has a nightmare about a horde of thieves, dropping endlessly one by one into her garden in the dead of night. João dreams of a waterfall of blood. While the security guards swap tales of random violence, Bia spies a lone black boy sneaking along the rooftops in the dark. Seu Francisco has made his way to the city, swapping his former plantation for urban real estate. While the high-rise monochrome jungle of Recife might look like another world, Darcy Ribeiro’s polarised cast structure of the sugar mill, foundational matrix of Brazilian society, is still firmly in place. Everything is different; nothing has changed. The urban domestic staff open and close doors for their masters, who live a comfortable and easy, but somehow strained, life. Everyone knows their place; everyone is edgy.

Neighbouring Sounds, which excels in originality, observation and detail, captures a long awaited moment of possible opening in Brazil. But can the country really change? The sins of the fathers continue to dictate the lives of the living. João is the quintessential cordial man, a Brazilian stereotype of extreme affability, and in his case, little productivity. Despite treating people well, and entertaining heartfelt notions of justice, he reinforces the archaic class system with his lazy, easygoing platitudes. He greets termination of his love affair with Sofia with the same vague, passive smile he applies to the rest of life. His grandfather, former senhor of the sugar plantation, continues to take all the decisions. But for how long?

Neighbouring Sounds is released in the United Kingdom on 22nd March and Itunes on 16 March.

Damian Platt is a British writer/producer living in Rio de Janeiro and the author of the book/blog Culture is your Weapon.

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