‘Neighboring Sounds” unfolds like a casual nightmare in the light of day. A slice-of-life drama set in a high-rise neighborhood a few blocks off the beach in Recife, Brazil, the film follows a handful of characters about their daily business. Not much happens, yet a smog of doom hangs in the air. Distant industrial noises clang, as though the apocalypse were waiting just outside the frame. If the old surrealist Luis Bunuel were still around, he might find this jaundiced world familiar.
Instead, the writer-director is Kleber Mendonça Filho, who graduates from short films as a talent to watch. “Neighboring Sounds” opens with archival photos of Brazil’s plantation days, a rebuke of sorts to the spiritual wasteland of the main narrative. Even though the aging neighborhood senhor, Francisco (W.J. Solha), got his start in sugar cane, it’s real estate that has made him a millionaire, allowing him to sell blocks of single-family houses for conversion into airless apartment towers.
His descendants swim uncertainly through this landscape. One grandson, Joao (Gustavo Jahn), has returned from Europe and is stuck in a dead-end realtor job, talking locals into literally moving up. Another grandson, Joao’s cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda), specializes in car break-ins. His latest victim is Joao’s sad-faced new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), who grew up in one of the last remaining frame houses on the block.
One of the apartment dwellers, Beatriz (Maeve Jinkings) is a bored housewife and mother who finds sexual bliss via a vibrating washing machine and uses a vacuum cleaner to cover up her pot habit. (Filho locates an eerie beauty in the contrails of smoke passing from lip to metal tube.) When all else fails, she drugs the neighbor’s dog to cease its endless howling. Everything about these lives looks new; everything feels as old as a vendetta. There’s a reason bars cover every door and window.
“Neighboring Sounds” gets a semblance of a narrative with the arrival of a private security team on the block, headed up by a lean ex-army man named Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos). Using a combination of fear-mongering and threat, he signs up most of the residents and gets a tacit go-ahead from the leonine Francisco, who, we learn in one nighttime beach sequence, is used to swimming with sharks. Is Clodoaldo a protector or one of the hordes finding a new way to breach the gates? The director keeps his characters and audience off balance until a satisfyingly elliptical ending.
You can see a dozen ways the movie could have become a turgid thriller or a heavy-handed social diatribe, but Filho (who lives in the neighborhood himself) has the confidence of an artist with intimate knowledge of his territory, physical and psychic. On some level, “Neighboring Sounds” is a ghost story, and as much as the characters may try to rise out of the past into the white sterility of their kitchens and living rooms, divisions of class and race and the generations aren’t easily spackled over. There’s sex here, but it feels like a memory rather than the real thing. Besides, there’s always someone else in the next room.
Filho acts as his own sound designer and he has a cinematographer, Pedro Sotero, who understands the mission. They create a sunny world with impenetrable shadows, a paradise where we never stop hearing the grating of the machinery that creates it. The film is as metaphorical as you want to make it — a projection of deep unease that can be enlarged to take in all of Recife, or Brazil, or human society — but it never loses its watchful, darkly comic cool. In short, a remarkable debut.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.