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The power of a single film

With a limited budget, O som ao redor (Neighboring Sounds) mobilized critics and attracted 100,000 moviegoers

Arte_207Photos Public domain images

O som ao redor, the modestly budgeted film made outside the typical Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo corridor and without the actors often seen on primetime television managed to achieve two feats: it attracted 100,000 spectators to movie theaters and dramatically rallied Brazilian critical thought, generating a considerable degree of critical review.

Kleber Mendonça, the filmmaker from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco who directed the film and wrote its complex (and somewhat sketchy screenplay, is the son of an historian and university professor. While his mother conducted academic research and delved into her studies of Casa grande & senzala (The Masters and the Slaves), he watched one movie after another. He earned his undergraduate degree in communications from the Federal University of Pernambuco and became a film critic.

O som ao redor has generated a remarkable amount of critical review, comparable to that seen with the release of Terra em transe (Entranced Earth) by Glauber Rocha in 1967, Cronicamente inviável (Chronically Unfeasible) by Sérgio Bianchi in 2000, Cidade de Deus (City of God) by Fernando Meirelles in 2002 and Tropa de elite 1 (Elite Squad) and Tropa de elite 2 (Elite Squad: the enemy within), by José Padilha in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Mendonça’s film left the cinematic ghetto and confronts issues such as class warfare, the predatory fury of real estate speculation, Brazilian style racism and the presence of militias in providing services to citizens threatened by a sense of fear.

The story begins on a normal day, on a middle class street in the Pernambucan capital of Recife. “It would be a day just like all the others,” Mendonça points out, “if only the militia had not come to offer the highly touted peace of mind that only private security can provide.” But the presence of the militia members ends up “bringing calm to some, but tension to others, in a community that seems to have a lot of fear.”

Ismail Xavier, film professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), got excited about Mendonça’s first feature-length fictional film. To him, “the film deals with a subject often repeated in recent Pernambucan cinema, which is the relationship between past and present, or the layers of time that build up in the contemporary experience of our incomplete modernization. The result is a dramatic reenactment of life in an upper middle class neighborhood of Recife.”

Scenes from the film O som ao redor by Kleber Mendonça

Photos Public domain images Scenes from the film O som ao redor by Kleber MendonçaPhotos Public domain images

Xavier, author of Alegorias do subdesenvolvimento: Cinema Novo, Tropicalismo e Cinema Marginal (Allegories of underdevelopment: New Cinema, tropicalism and marginal cinema), points out that “by talking about the past’s hold on the present, O som ao redor also attempts to analyze the rural and urban, or the presence of patriarchical traditions of command and cronyism in present-day city life, with a tableau of characters and situations that at first seem to be just fragments or snapshots of neighborhood life that come together not from a strong narrative connection, but rather from a commanding mise-en-scène and a great soundtrack.”

For the USP professor, “what really matters is that the tenuous nature of the passage of time permeates the course of O som ao redor and enhances the relationship between fragmentation, opening and movement towards an outcome. At a time when open endings, with questions, have become the norm, Mendonça’s gesture goes against the tide by tying the prologue to the final scene as a comeback by the repressed.”

The researcher asks himself why the film generated such significant critical review. “On the one hand,” says Xavier, “seen from inside Brazilian production, O som ao redor shifts the internal debate about violence and urban challenges that are generally associated with the crisis of the family and focus on “fatherless” youths whose social condition encourages their entry into organized crime (and here we are bound to recall films like Cidade de Deus, among others).”

But unlike the film by Fernando Meirelles, “Mendonça’s film revisits the question of rage as it pertains to the authoritarianism of patriarchical tradition, in a way that instead of ‘blaming’ out of control urbanization because it dissolves the family, emphasizes the other side of the problem: it shows that authoritarianism is part of the family tradition of those on the top who survive.”

Xavier points out that Mendonça’s film presents a synthesis in that the past in the present, the rural in the city, and issues of class are articulated within the patriarchical paradigm in a way that encourages us to look back on the path this cinema has taken for nearly 20 years. “One of the strengths of O som ao redor is precisely the fact that it causes us to look back in retrospection, something that only extraordinary works are able to do,” says the researcher.