Ugly architecture is very photogenic.
The black and white photos that fill the screen at the start of Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor) call up a history at once personal and collective, possessing and possessed by the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife. A family stares into the camera, an old woman gives an interview, her face gaunt and poster straight, a group of workers stand with tools raised high, their sandals and hats indicating they toil in heat, perhaps in the fields that appear in some shots that follow, and likely not in the fine homes that loom in others.
These images hover in your memory as the film’s first moving shot appears, color and low angle, tracking a girl on roller skates, gliding through alleys and upstairs to the white-walled condo where she lives with her family. The juxtaposition is striking, as it links past and present, stillness and speed, labor and leisure, and so frames the story that follows, a story that’s not so much about the girl and her brother as it is about the legacy they’re receiving, even as you watch.
That legacy becomes clearer as Neighboring Sounds proceeds. While the children move easily — or at least quickly — through their urban space, the adults around them are increasingly distracted and unable to move. The kids’ mother, Beatriz (or Bia) (Maeve Jinkings), is a case in point: she first appears in the film listening to a dog bark, a dog that’s supposed to keep watch. Her husband slumbers beside her in bed, his face turned away obscured while she stares into the space above. Cut to a shot of BIa at her kitchen table, framed by an archway, and set to the right side. She smokes a cigarette, still and wide awake as her son walks past her, a slim shadow who pauses to peer into the refrigerator and suggest, “Take something to make you sleep. You have a full day tomorrow.”
The scene establishes BIa’s uneasiness and her son’s acclimation, a difference that becomes more pronounced, as you see the kids’ reactions to Bia’s altercations with neighbors or their parents’ arguments, whether they exchange knowing glances or retreat into their backroom. Whether she’s taking the kids to school or checking the street below with her binoculars, Bia appears repeatedly set behind grates and fences, the shots composed to underscore the neighborhood’s efforts to provide security and also the effects of such efforts, namely, individuals’ isolation. Bia’s husband rarely speaks to her; she spends her afternoons smoking pot whose smokes she sends out the window through her vacuum cleaner, or closing the laundry room door so she can masturbate on the raucous washing machine.
While Bia looks contained in her space, keeping secrets, at least a few of her neighbors are less reserved. João (Gustavo Jahn) is introduced as he’s having sex — in a shower and then on a couch with his new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown). Interrupted when the housekeeper arrives, the couple makes their way into the bathroom, where they continue kissing while Luciene and her two kids laugh in the kitchen. As she settles in to cleaning the apartment, the kids park themselves on the couch to watch TV, serene in the space that just a few moments before was occupied by João and Sophia. The changing scenes draw attention to what’s too familiar to notice otherwise: a space is defined as much by who’s in it as by what it looks like or how it’s arranged.
Neighboring Sounds goes on to consider how that idea of space is changing, generally and specifically. If Bia is the most visibly anxious about the sounds she’s been hearing — that dog barking, every night — João develops his own concerns when he and Sophia discover her car CD player has been stolen overnight. He has a particular, if resentful, interest, being a real estate agent in this very area, Recife, its onetime small houses now replaced by highrises. João’s working for his grandfather Francisco (W. J. Solha), whose grandson, Dinho (Yuri Holanda) is João’s cousin and also his first suspect in the CD player theft. Dinho is used to living as he wants, without consequences; he’s a bully, obviously, but so is Francisco, only in a quieter, more sustained way. When João undertakes to hire a security patrol for the neighborhood — a ragtag crew with walkie-talkies and vests, headed by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) — Francisco insists they have no authority over Dinho.
The men continue to tangle over jurisdiction, the women and children contend with borders. While Bia retreats into her apartment, the maids, by definition, are constantly in motion, their roles premised on transformation and adaptability. João’s housekeeper brings her children with her each day, such that her workplace must accommodate her not-so-private life, and she and Francisco’s maid, Luciene (Clébia Souza), communicate using air vents and across balconies.
As you contemplate the relationship between such public and private exchanges, the ways that space is made and unmade, regulated and manipulated, the film pauses on a particularly vivid, if everyday, instance of transformation. Preparing to run an errand for Francisco — and also to meet with her new boyfriend — Luciene changes from her work clothes into shorts. As you watch her through a doorway — much as you see Bia through a door or João’s client framed by a window — you understand that space is never quite contained, that safety cannot be guaranteed, that no one lives in one realm only.