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Originally published Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 10:05 PM

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'Neighboring Sounds': Danger lurks silently on Brazilian block

A movie review of "Neighboring Sounds," Kleber Mendonça Filho's revelatory debut feature that takes place mostly on a wealthy block in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife.

The New York Times

Movie review

'Neighboring Sounds,' with Irandhir Santos, Gustavo Jahn. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. 131 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In Portuguese, with English subtitles. SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.

The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.

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"Neighboring Sounds," Kleber Mendonça Filho's revelatory debut feature, takes place mostly on a wealthy block in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife. Identical, gleaming white high-rises dominate the skyline, obscuring the nearby ocean and also the urban poverty that has been central to Brazil's social and cinematic identity for decades.

The characters in this densely populated movie can be roughly divided into masters and servants. But Mendonça is up to something more than the usual upstairs-downstairs comedy of colliding destinies in a small place. The scope of his movie is narrow, but its ambitions are enormous, and it accomplishes nothing less than the illumination of the peculiar state of Brazilian (and not only Brazilian) society.

"Neighboring Sounds" is divided into three chapters, each with "guard" in the title, and one of the movie's themes is the intimate relationship between security and paranoia. There are metal grates and surveillance cameras, and also a private force of muscular men patrolling the street at night. Their leader is Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos). The anxiety that it is his job to dispel never really goes away, and neither does the haunting sense that something terrible is always lurking just beyond the frame.

Mendonça's camera exposes a world of complex relationships and simmering contradictions. And also of ordinary people going about their daily business.

As the film's title suggests, it is sound that carries unsettling implications of danger. We always hear more than we see: footsteps upstairs or outside; sirens and crashes in the night. With sound designer Pablo Lamar, Mendonça has created the aural landscape of a horror movie.

And, for much of its running time, a thriller without a plot. The tension that suffuses the routines of everyday life is as hard to identify as it is to avoid, so that a late swerve toward violence, while surprising, also seems inevitable, the silent turn of an invisible wheel of fate. No one can quite see or hear what is coming, but something is out there.

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