This weekend I had the unhappy experience of catching up with Les Miserables, which suffers from more problems than I can detail here but notably—and fatally for a period picture—lacks much sense of place. The digital long shots of 19th-century Paris look phony, and because director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) likes to close in on his warbling actors, the inky interiors seldom register. I may be particularly sensitive to this flaw because I've also just watched Neighboring Sounds, a Brazilian drama with a powerful and enveloping sense of place that begins a weeklong run on Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center. Writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho, making his feature debut after a handful of shorts and a documentary, has drawn comparisons to Robert Altman for his weaving together of many characters inside and around a middle-class high-rise in a suburb of Recife, the capital city of Pernambuco. Distinguishing him from Altman, though, is a sure grasp of how people try to define—and are more often defined by—the spaces they inhabit.
Filho shot the movie in his own neighborhood, where single-family homes have been giving way to tightly clustered condominium towers, and there are striking wide-screen frames of both the exploding skyline and the constricted spaces where residents sit stacked on top of one another. "Shooting wide was extremely important for a film where I wanted viewers to see the architecture," Filho explained recently to Aaron Cutler of Cinema Scope. "I can no longer stand watching films where the people are filmed in tight close-up with a shaky-cam. . . . I like opening up the plane, and in this film in particular I very clearly wanted to establish the people within their environment." The characters' relationship to that environment can be as vivid—and as fraught—as their relationships with other people. Nothing much happens in Neighboring Sounds until the very end, yet the tension between the characters and their surroundings accumulates for more than two hours, creating a vague dread.
No character chafes against her environment more than Beatriz (Maeve Jinkings), who lives in one of the condo units with her husband and school-age son and daughter. The family's unit is near street level, across the alley from another building, and they're plagued by the owners of a unit directly below and next door to them who leave their dog to howl for hours on end. Any means of resolving the problem seem to have been exhausted already, and Bia's husband and kids have learned to tune out the noise, but it drives her crazy. She presses some pills into a piece of raw meat, tosses it through the slatted window that separates them from the back patio of the building next door, and knocks the dog out for a while. She cranks the Queen song "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," but the howling seeps in between the rests in the music. She orders a high-frequency siren that drives the dog away, and when the maid accidentally breaks it, Bia is so stressed by the howling that her children have to massage her back and feet.
Filho understands that, in the city, privacy means not only protecting your personal life from other people but protecting your mental space from theirs. To this end he's dispensed with a score and instead uses an ambient soundtrack in which noises from the adjoining units and the street below—TVs, machines, people yelling, etc—maintain a low boil throughout the movie. The building has surveillance cameras everywhere, and the main story line (such as it is) involves an independent security service contracting with the building's owner to patrol the street below. Privacy issues creep into the other stories too: After swiping the kids' binoculars to spy on the dog, Bia has to take them away from her son, who's studying a neighbor across the alley. As the kids head off to school, Bia hides in her bedroom with the vacuum cleaner, smoking a joint and blowing her exhaust into the nozzle. Alone in the laundry room with a jolting clothes washer, she pulls down her panties and mounts the corner of the machine until it brings her to climax. (Apparently this is what Filho means when he talks about establishing the characters within their environment.)
The building seems oppressive mainly because there are so many long, narrow spaces within it, which Filho exploits masterfully in his wide-screen framing. In one shot near the beginning, the camera peers down on two teenage lovers furtively making out in the little hallway created by a standing wall that bisects the frame. In another shot near the end, when the security specialist Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and his deputy Fernando (Nivaldo Nascimento) pay a visit to Francisco Oliveira (W.J. Solha), the snowy-haired sugarcane planter who owns the building and half the block, they walk down a tight exterior hallway decorated with white tile as sensors raise and then dim the outside lights. Every inch of the building is whitewashed, and the effect can be blinding. "Looks like a factory," says one prospective buyer as she and her daughter are led down a bright exterior walkway by Joao (Gustavo Jahn), who is Francisco's grandson and the sales manager for the building. Inside the unit, the woman presses Joao about a recent incident in which a tenant leapt from one of the balconies to her death, and asks him to lower the price, insisting the building has a "negative energy." Joao refuses, promising her, "This place is not haunted."
Maybe not, but negative energy might result from the fact that the architecture encourages disconnection. The exterior spaces on every floor are carved up with five-to-seven-foot standing walls, and the lower floors have terraces no one seems able to access. In one funny sequence, as the buyer haggles with Joao, her little girl ventures out onto the balcony of the unit they're considering (its sliding glass doors divide up the horizon of towers in the distance, suggesting a Frank Lloyd Wright window) and sees a little boy on the street below kick his soccer ball onto the second-floor terrace. "Throw back the ball!" he shouts at her, though she motions that she's on the balcony above and can't access it. When her mother comes out on the balcony and glimpses flower wreaths for the dead woman on the terrace, she drags her child inside and ends the meeting. Later that day, in one of the delayed punch lines Filho slyly uses to connect the various stories, the soccer ball drops to the street from above, too late to be found.
A handsome and ingratiating young man, Joao provides a link between the daily life of the building and the family money behind it. Filho introduces him with a bold sequence in which a shot of the skyline cuts to a long row of discarded beer and wine bottles on a fine wooden table, then a medium shot of Joao sleeping naked beside his new lover, Sofia (Irma Brown). Like the teenage lovers earlier in the movie, these two are always looking for some solitude, and they have to scramble from the living room into the bedroom when the maid arrives. Later on, the building guard watches on a security monitor as Joao and Sofia make out in the elevator. Sofia has grown up in the neighborhood, and one day Joao takes her to visit her old house, which is about to be demolished and turned into a 21-story tower. In her old bedroom, he lifts her up so she can touch the glow-in-the-dark stars and moons pasted on her ceiling, which have since been painted over white.
Filho leaves the neighborhood only once, in the movie's third and final act, as Joao and Sofia pay a visit to the old man on his plantation. The ominous forward-tracking shot down a muddy, rutted road was an image Filho pulled up from his own childhood in an aristocratic neighborhood. "The whole area belonged to one family," he told Cinema Scope. "The patriarch used to ride his horse up and down the dirt road. This is in the middle of the city, but the street kept an atmosphere of tradition, down to the absence of asphalt." Walking through the town, Joao and Sofia are swept into its past, passing a grade school where children chant for a local politician and the town's movie theater, now a roofless, abandoned structure grown over with vegetation. This is the world that's being erased by all the new condo developments, and it's no accident that Joao has fallen in love with Sofia, one of the few characters who seem to remember the Recife of the past.
"I'm interested in a cinema of fiction that's documentary as well," Filho expained. "You see Taxi Driver today, and it's fascinating because it's fiction, but it's also New York in 1975." His remark shows how clearly he understands the importance of location in storytelling, though of course the cost of location shooting has always driven filmmakers to cheaper means (exterior sets on sound stages, rear-projection photography, and now digital manipulation). None of them can substitute for the effect of people brushing up against a real place, one that may shape who they are and then, unaccountably, disappear.