Kleber Mendonça Filho’s mesmerising and mysterious debut centres on a modern apartment complex in Recife, Brazil, and concerns several residents’ small, everyday dramas. A bored housewife adds spice to her life by misusing various household appliances; a cute young couple begin a sweet romance; a cowboy security firm takes advantage of the middle-class paranoia that’s rife in the complex by setting up a genial protection racket.
These intertwined stories initially seem to be domestic farces poking fun at the bourgeois residents. This wry tone, however, is at odds with Neighbouring Sounds’ dense sound design. From outwith the apartment’s high walls and bolted security gates an unnerving cacophony continually rings out: the screams of roughhousing kids, the high-pitched drilling and grinding of nearby construction, and some metallic clanging too alien to pinpoint. This racket is oppressive, almost deafening, but, like Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, who coolly delivers Coppola’s film’s most iconic dialogue while ignoring the carnage of war surrounding him, the apartment's inhabitants seem oblivious to the noise pollution that engulfs their high-tech homes.
As well as being an aural treat, Neighbouring Sounds is a visual one too. Filho’s use of space is masterful, as fine as Antonioni or Polanski, with long Steadicam tracks and crisp wide shots giving us a fine-grained rendering of the block’s communal and private spaces. Long before Neighbouring Sounds' chief theme is thrillingly revealed near its dénouement it's implied, with the modernist architecture’s sleek lines imbuing a nefarious vibe despite the cheerful hue of its decor.
Filho’s trump card is that he isn’t afraid to dip his toe in the surreal, be it a waterfall that inexplicably turns blood red or a young girl’s dream that quickly morphs into an Assault on Precinct 13-style home invasion nightmare. These quick, sharp shocks keep us as on-edge as the paranoid urbanites: we’re never quite sure when or if these violent vignettes will spill over into the real lives of our protagonists.
If there’s a hero in Filho’s film it’s young stay-at-home mum Beatriz (Jinkings), the one character acting out against the noisy environment. It's her war of attrition with a neighbour's barking mutt that elevates Neighbouring Sounds from a chilly, Haneke-like exercise in dread to a warm, humane drama. And with her surreptitious marijuana use she gives us cinema’s funniest joint smoking scene since Milos Forman’s Taking Off. [Jamie Dunn]