"Every piece of criticism is an autobiography"—Oscar Wilde, quoted in Kleber Mendonça Filho's film Crítico
Kleber Mendonça Filho's debut feature, Neighboring Sounds (2012), opens with a cast list, followed by black-and-white still images. A fence blocks a car's path. A pair of poor farmer parents pose with their two children. A man in a suit sits outdoors, interviewing an elderly woman. Rural workers gather, then a plantation appears, then workers again, as a drumbeat swells. Suddenly, the film cuts to present-day kids skating toward a concrete playground in the wealthy neighborhood of Setúbal, within the suburb of Boa Viagem, part of the metropolis of Recife, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Brazil. The photographs are never explicitly referred to again, but they haunt the subsequent action, giving it historical weight and context.
Mendonça's own history gives further weight and context to the film, which tracks the overlapping interactions among several small family units and their employers and employees, brought into focus by the arrival of a solicitous group of security guards. His earlier short films, all rewarding stand-alone works, are also key parts of that history. The Museum of the Moving Image's January 13 First Look program of six of them—four of which will be receiving their United States theatrical premieres—with Mendonça in person will help show this. (Neighboring Sounds will also screen at the Museum on January 19, and Sounds as well as four of the shorts will be released on home video by Cinema Guild on March 19.)
The generally ecstatic U.S. critical reception for Sounds, which opened in New York in August after winning prizes at numerous festivals, has nevertheless lacked needed context. Even though most of the write-ups have been raves, their inability even to get the director's last name right—one review after another mistakenly referred to Mendonça as "Filho," which is Portuguese for "Jr."—has pointed as much to their unfamiliarity with him as it has to much of Brazilian culture's invisibility within the United States.
The U.S. media, by and large, does too little to represent the ethnically and geographically diverse nation of nearly 200 million beyond stereotypes of criminal men, sexy women, beaches, and Carnaval. Brazilian cinema in particular is gapingly absent within American distribution. Neither the films of the artist generally considered the country's greatest narrative filmmaker (Glauber Rocha), nor the one called its greatest documentarian (Eduardo Coutinho), let alone those seen as its most dazzling avant-garde filmmakers (from Mário Peixoto to Rogério Sganzerla and Júlio Bressane), receive more than rare repertory projections, and U.S. DVDs of their works cannot yet be found at all. So when Neighboring Sounds became one of the few contemporary Brazilian films to receive first-run theatrical distribution in the States, it was perhaps inevitable that the work would be received like a thing from another world—and furthermore, that it would be seen as a statement on what life was like in Brazil in general.
The film is a statement on life in Brazil, insofar as it is Mendonça's own particular statement on his own particular circumstances in his own particular part of the country. The street on which the main action unfolds is his actual street; the apartment of one of the protagonists, the stir-crazy housewife Bia (played by Maeve Jinkings), is his apartment; the dog whose persistent barking drives Bia bonkers is his neighbor's dog. Many of the film's incidents, often charged with implicit racial or class tensions, came directly from things he had lived, and its mixing of genres—drama, comedy, action, horror—came from the mind of someone who regards daily life as material for cinema. This includes even the most basic human relationships, as Mendonça used Neighboring Sounds, which opens with a dedication to his mother, to continue exploring his interest in the possibilities for relationships between parents and children.
Mendonça was born in 1968 in Recife to two historians, who divorced when he was 9; his mother, with whom he and his younger brother (now an architect) primarily lived afterwards, worked at the city's Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, his own future employer and a major cultural and historical research center named after the celebrated abolitionist who helped end Brazilian's four centuries of African slavery in 1888. In addition to cultural and family stories, Mendonça's parents instilled a love in him for the escapist tales of American commercial films by taking him to Recife's movie palaces. Mendonça would later memorialize these glamorous spaces, mostly shuttered by the 1990s, in his university graduation project, the twin documentaries Casa de Imagem [House of Images] and Homem de Projeção [Projectionist] (both 1992).
His formative Recife screenings included projections of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). While living in England between ages 13 and 18 on account of his mother's Ph.D. study, he discovered the films of John Carpenter, who became one of his greatest influences. The coiled, primed-to-burst surprises of films like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Thing (1982) engaged him, and their low budget and minimal settings led him to believe that he could make films as well.
What equally distinguished Carpenter was, as Mendonça today says, "an ascetic way of seeing things." In a Carpenter film, the differences between characters' ages, races, genders, and classes are subtly noted and their relationships subsequently developed within carefully arranged widescreen compositions. The films took into account not just how characters interacted with each other, but also how they were influenced by their settings. In time Mendonça would apply his version of this ascetic view to his own films; when he showed Halloween (1978) to his Neighboring Sounds cinematographer, Pedro Sotero (along with Poltergeist ) and James Gray's Two Lovers ), before shooting, it was largely to suggest a way of learning about people on a suburban street by noticing the houses behind them.
Carpenter was, in his way, a journalist: Whether profiling a small fishing town through its residents (The Fog ) or editorializing the need for an American class struggle by studying the urban poor (They Live ), he gave viewers the opportunity to learn something, often about an interesting place. Mendonça himself went on to study journalism at the State University of Pernambuco, then merged it with his love for cinema by becoming a film critic and cultural reporter for the local newspaper Jornal do Commercio [Journal of Commerce], a profession that he would continue until he left it to work on Neighboring Sounds.
But he had already merged film and journalism as early on as Travelling (1991), a video consisting of two traveling shots in and around metro stations, the first in New York and the second in Recife, accompanied by a cacophony of radio noise. (Like Carpenter, Mendonça valued sound as much as image, and would be intimately involved in building each of his films' sound designs.) He began to add overt sociopolitical commentary to his camera-eye with the following year's Video Sobre Areia [Video About Sand](1992), set fully in his hometown.
We learn that neighboring Recife suburbs can be distinguished from each other by their architectures: The prosperous Boa Viagem is made up of modern high-rises; the poor Brasília Teimosa contains low buildings along flat streets. The two suburbs are separated by a beach. The video follows a group of artists as they excavate sand from the Boa Viagem beachside, creating a hole, and build a tower with it on the Brasília Teimosa side. The suburbs' positions are symbolically switched, and the video's ending shows children joyfully playing with both new landmarks. One of the artists explains her work of metaphorical class-leveling by saying that she believes art needs to make its points in language anyone can understand. Her words foreshadow one of Mendonça's great interests as a filmmaker—to exaggerate the conditions of daily reality, and in so doing, reveal a greater reality. "I'm more interested in a state of mind than in hard facts," he told me last year in a Cinema Scope interview.
He made a stab at revealing a state of mind through exaggeration of daily life in his first developed piece of fiction filmmaking, Enjaulado [Caged In] (1997).
The film is overtly a piece of apprentice work—an early scene contains a snatch of the Assault on Precinct 13 score, and references both to Carpenter and to Dario Argento abound within the subsequent remake of Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). While the Catherine Deneuve character in Polanski's film goes mad from fear of being raped, Mendonça's grungy twentysomething male (played by Charles Hodges) fears being robbed or murdered on his Boa Viagem street, perhaps even inside his apartment. Close-ups ensue of barred windows and multiple locks, interrupted by bloody nightmares, which compel the man to shut himself in even tighter. As in the Polanski film, the extent of the character's fear becomes a mordant joke, culminating in his killing himself to prevent anyone else from killing him first.
Yet while the man's fate is extreme, his earlier steps to protect himself against intruders are firmly rooted in reality. Boa Viagem apartments actually look like this, as Mendonça would demonstrate again in Electrodoméstica (2005) with a scene of a woman unlocking her white barred door, descending a flight of stairs, and approaching her locked white barred gate; and once more in Neighboring Sounds, in which every living space seems to have a gate, a security camera, or both. Sounds in particular can be looked to as a psychological development of Enjaulado in addition to a visual one, as the film contains several scenes of middle-to-upper-class characters accusing or suspecting other people of committing crimes without showing what actually happened. A larger point that both Mendonça's first narrative short and first feature make is that people are capable of imagining horrors much more horrible than what the physical world typically contains.
The word "horror," though, must be approached carefully here. Its strict definition is a strong feeling of revulsion, which can come from preconceptions as much as from any actual danger. While the word is frequently associated with the supernatural, not all that is supernatural is horrible. For instance, Mendonça has said that he values the storytelling power of ghosts, who are not necessarily malignant, or even bent on interfering with present affairs in any way. They can simply be presiding spirits.
Recife and its greater state of Pernambuco, historically home to Brazil's largest slave plantations—alluded to in Neighboring Sounds with the sugar mill of the wealthy old landowner Francisco (W.J. Solha)—are potentially full of such ghosts, especially as racism in Brazil continues to be its own subtle, uncomfortable institution. In Neighboring Sounds, the rich young man João (Gustavo Jahn) is white, his maid Mariá (Mauricéia Conceição) is black, her family will continue working for his into future generations, and nobody comments on this, the unspoken suggestion being that this dynamic belongs to a larger legacy of slavery.
Pernambuco's rich sense of history is very much a result of this legacy, which great local writers like Nabuco and Gilberto Freyre have chronicled. This local tradition of vividly recounting history and historical patterns—continued through a strong current wave of regional filmmakers, such as Cláudio Assis, a friend of Mendonça's whose great film Bog of Beasts (2007) opens with the reading of a poem that gives historical context to the subsequent action in much the same way that the photographs at the beginning of Neighboring Sounds do—has spawned a large number of urban legends in addition to formal written works. Mendonça took advantage of one for his next short, the first in the Museum's program and his first to gain him prominent festival exposure:
In the 1970s, a dead little girl terrorized boys and girls in Recife's schools. She appeared in the bathrooms, during the recess period of after classes had ended. The fear of bathrooms was so great that many children waited hours just to pee at home. In Recife, she was "The Little Cotton Girl," for it was said that she had cotton in her eyes and ears. In other regions, she came to legend as "The Cotton Woman," "The Bathroom Blondie," or "The Blade Girl." Even today, she is lurking within our childhood nightmares.
Mendonça made The Little Cotton Girl (2003) six years after Enjaulado and five years after being hired as the film programmer at the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, a position he still holds. (He had asked during a journalistic interview with one of the Fundação's creative directors what the programming for the newly equipped theater would be, and was offered the job.) He had also bought a mini-DV camera. The Little Cotton Girl came out of a Final Cut workshop he took with future frequent collaborator Daniel Bandeira, and was shot at night in the school where the class took place, with Bandeira playing the lead role of an unfortunate men's room visitor. The film points toward old directions—the little girl's first entrance is a clear reference to The Shining, and the school is identified as "Sen. João Carpinteiro" (a joke repeated in Neighboring Sounds)—while also moving in new ones.
The first time Mendonça mentioned The Little Cotton Girl to me, he called it a "short suspense film." "Suspense" seems like a more appropriate word than "horror," as the film suspends the viewer from certainty through suggestive techniques that Mendonça would reuse in later films. Shock cuts that jolt the viewer, though no definable danger is apparent; a swelling, echoing soundtrack whose noises gesture toward offscreen sources that can't be immediately placed. As the lights go up on different, seemingly empty parts of the school, the sensation emerges of the ghost permeating the space. Well before the grand Carpenter moment of the monster taking an encore, one feels that these spaces will remain haunted.
The photography works to suspend the viewer from present time through halting, stuttered imagery, giving distance from the action as though it has already taken place, grown into legend, and is now being recalled. The image quality harks towards the photographs of Neighboring Sounds, and more immediately toward Mendonça's next short film, Green Vinyl (2004), which is told through a third-person-narrated series of still images after the manner of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962). Green Vinyl's inspiration came from a fairy tale told to Mendonça by his Ukranian then-partner, Bohdana Smyrnova, a fellow filmmaker with whom he wrote the script. The tale of a young girl who causes her mother's death with repeated listening sessions of a forbidden vinyl record could have become another pleasurable scare; to its director's surprise, though, the film turned into something deeper.
Both of Mendonça's parents had died of cancer before Green Vinyl's making—his mother in 1995, his father in 2001. The director realized in post-production that the film was about his mother's death. The end result is literally about a child watching a parent lose access to her body on the way to death, and the work involved in caring for the person while this happens. Yet rather than being tragic, let alone horrifying, Green Vinyl's mood feels sweet. As Daughter (played by Gabriela Souza) feeds Mother (Verônica Alves) biscuits and slides her bag onto her shoulder, their love deepens. Though Mother's gift ends up killing her, it also encourages Daughter to imagine, to create, and to learn how to take care of herself. The parent gives the child instructions while leaving her with the freedom to make her own decisions.
Ultimately, the narrator states, Daughter grew up into her own loving Mother. Close-ups of Daughter's dolls precede the film's closing words, told over an image of the little girl, that "Later, she herself fell in love, had her own children. For them she gave all her love, and all her fears and deepest afflictions." In doing so, the film suggests, she gave them parts of herself, which made them gifts.
Green Vinyl's shoot ended in February 2003. Mendonça was still editing the film when he and Smyrnova shot part of their co-written Friday Night Saturday Morning (2006) that June, in the same location (Kiev) and same colors (black-and-white) as the first film of hers he had seen. She played "Dasha"; that September and the following May in Recife, Mendonça's friend and future Neighboring Sounds cinematographer Pedro Sotero played "Pedro." The film consists mainly of a cell phone conversation between the members of a long-distance couple as they each head to a beach and while he prepares to break up with her. Though the time lags between shooting periods greatly complicated the film's editing, they also fit its story, in which two people talk to each other from opposite sides of an ocean at different moments in their lives.
Friday Night, Saturday Morning
Many filmmakers have made their own versions of Friday Night Saturday Morning, and many more likely will. Yet Mendonça's telling is distinguished by its variations on what seems to be a template form. While many love-and-loss films focus predominantly on the male side—a consequence of the writer-directors being men—Friday Night Saturday Morning begins with him, ends with her, and creates a balance between the two in the interim—perhaps a consequence not just of closely collaborating with a woman, but also of this particular filmmaker's preference for strong female characters. Rather than dragging down into the expected confessional anger (dispensed with within the first three minutes), the film's tone flows lightly with melancholy.
As with several of Mendonça's other films, one could call Friday Night Saturday Morning a ghost story. There is the ghost of the un-entered Kiev cinema where the couple saw Rosetta (1999), now consigned to showing The Hulk (2005) like every other; the lost cinema world in turn suggests the couple's lost relationship, which has ended before the film begins and whose death will be formalized by film's conclusion. We listen to the two people converse, but don't hear his rejection, perhaps because we have already heard him speak it (in the past tense) to a friend at the film's outset. The lone word we hear at the end is her "You," spoken into the air, and weighted with the possibility of never seeing her loved one again.
Mendonça's romantic relationship with Smyrnova ended before Friday Night wrapped, yet neither it nor any of his other films should be read as straight autobiography. Mendonça's position, which seeing the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's blend of memoir and fantasy Divine Intervention (2002) had helped him solidify, was that an artist could share his life in ways poetic, surreal, and even absurd while still being honest. "People say that ‘This [Friday Night] is his most personal film' because it deals with love," Mendonça told an interviewer for the Brazilian website Pílula Pop in 2007. "But Electrodoméstica was made in the building where I live, which I've been observing for many years—it's totally personal."
He was referring to his next short, which began filming in March 2004 ("All the films were happening at the same time," Mendonça says today) with his new partner, Emilie Lesclaux, who executive produced it and would produce his subsequent films, including Neighboring Sounds. A grant helped him realize a script that had been lying dormant since 1994, inspired by a few hours he had once spent with his mother and brother waiting for a flight in Miami. They saw fellow Brazilians lining up with what Mendonça today describes as "a pyramid of stuff—microwave ovens, fax machines, VCRs, hi-fi systems, stereos and all kinds of junk." Soon afterwards, the Brazilian football team won the World Cup in Los Angeles, and Mendonça was struck by all the foreign cargo the players took with them back home.
There were clear reasons for Brazilians loading up on technological products abroad. Twenty years of military dictatorship had ended in 1985, but the new democracy's plan for economic development made inflation so frequent and so drastic that technological products became very expensive, and the country's being closed to importation made buying lower-priced foreign goods very difficult. The extreme images of consumerist hunger that these conditions created led Mendonça to imagine the extent to which a Recife housewife might prize her domestic tools on a day that her block suffers a power outage.
By the time Mendonça made Electrodoméstica (2005), a decade after writing its script, Brazil's economy had stabilized significantly, turning the film into a period piece. Electrodoméstica can easily be seen as a test run for the Neighboring Sounds storyline involving the contemporary character of Bia, which would remake several of its scenes in the same building. But there are differences between the two films, especially between their two protagonists. Bia is seen as a physical, sweaty person searching for occasions to leave the apartment, whether in mind or in body; by contrast, the unnamed Electrodoméstica woman (Magdale Alves) fits so naturally in between her white walls that it seems like the electro-domestic machines are extensions of her mind and body, and that she will function for as long and for as well as they do.
The differences further play into how the women deal with their children, a son and a daughter in both cases. Though Bia might seem the more human of the two women, they interact with their children in equally human ways. While Bia is more prone to sharing her body and the Electrodoméstica woman (through frequent instructions) is more prone to sharing words, each shares her spirit. A scene of the Electrodoméstica woman helping her daughter with math homework by discussing how she and her husband will pay for the family's new television registers both comically and poignantly: By turning abstract numbers into concrete praxis, the mother is teaching her daughter not just about math, but also about how to live daily life. At another point, she tells her son to use his own words rather than someone else's. As in Green Vinyl, the parent's greatest gift and show of love for her children is educating them in a way that prepares them for adulthood.
The ability to look with both a critical and a loving eye—on the Electrodoméstica woman, as well as on the greater community outside her barred walls—befitted an artist who was also a full-time critic. He had learned some of how to see and then communicate what he had seen from his own mother, as the dedication of his next film suggested: "For my mother Joselice, who told me all about oral history." Since 1998 Mendonça had been interviewing critics and filmmakers about their relationships with each other while attending festivals as a programmer, critic, and filmmaker. Green Vinyl played in the 2005 Directors' Fortnight at Cannes, a few months before Electrodoméstica premiered at the São Paulo International Shorts Film Festival; he and Lesclaux were married in between. It was she who convinced him that the interviews could form a good film.
The resulting feature-length documentary Criítico (2008) contains a wide array of perspectives, from both Brazilian and foreign film professionals, on what makes good and bad film criticism. (A clip of Jafar Panahi calling censorship criticism's enemy was reused on the Neighboring Sounds soundtrack in tribute.) Movie theater-set scenes of old American instructional films run in between them, playfully suggesting film criticism to be a manual skill that can be learned like any other. Elia Suleiman says of his own preferred criticism that "If the critic is a writer—that means a self-searcher—that means the film or the work of art is for him a self-search—then it becomes a dialogue, and then of course it's constructive." His words echo the film's unofficial consensus, which is that a critic, before judging someone else, must see himself or herself clearly first.
Mendonça used Crítico outtakes to create a stand-alone short called Luz Industrial Mágica [Light Industry Magic] (2008), consisting largely of images of people using their cell phones and other small cameras to film celebrities.
Though he today considers the film a career outlier (it's played in the fewest number of festivals of any of the Moving Image shorts by far), it is closely linked to Neighboring Sounds in that both are about observation. The short largely shows people gazing outward while remaining self-involved. As they look at their camera lenses recording film stars, we watch them replacing people with images of people.
One could say that João does this in Neighboring Sounds when he assumes his cousin to be guilty of theft, as does any viewer who believes João. One could say also that this is how any kind of discrimination works, as well as any kind of cinema, since both reduce people to a small set of known, definable traits summed up in images. When people discriminate against others, they create their own private films in which the discriminated fit character templates. Mendonça had shown this happening on film as early on as the man who goes mad from an internal horror film in Enjaulado, but that caged-in mindset is also reflected in the spiked walls and barred windows of Electrodoméstica's opening sequence, and even invades the concentration of Friday Night Saturday Morning, as Pedro stands alone on the Recife beach and tells Dasha, "I could get robbed at any time now."
Mendonça's films had shown self-protectiveness running throughout Recife's middle- and upper-class residents to the point of paranoia. The filmmaker loved the idea of his group's next and most ambitious, expensive work yet playing with this attitude in the form of an outright fantasy film—a genre he felt Brazilian cinema lacked—though the end result also drew from traditions as varied as science fiction, mockumentary, landscape film, and essay film. Cold Tropics (aka Recife Frío) (2009), his last short before Neighboring Sounds, is narrated by an Argentinian newsman with the classically silly name of Pablo Hundertwasser (Andrés Schaffer), who walks viewers through the effects a sudden, lasting bout of bad weather has on "Recife, the city that ceased to be tropical."
Shot exclusively on rainy days over two years, the film came from Mendonça's memories of how much British people loved hot weather, accompanied by thoughts of how unused Brazilians were to the cold. Yet even in this seemingly light comedy, inspired by Monty Python, Mendonça continued discussing the harm that his hometown's people could do in the interests of feeling safe. While the film contains several pleasant cross-climate jokes—a Santa delighted not to sweat in his suit, a chagrined French resort owner unable to market sun to Gallic clients—its strongest points are unpleasant, pointing to how the powerful can discard or exploit the disempowered to protect their own interests. As hundreds of homeless freeze to death, an electronic ticker reads OUR JOB IS TO KEEP PEOPLE WARM. The teenage son of a wealthy family takes over his maid's quarters—always an apartment's smallest and hottest, we're told—and forces the woman to inhabit his; the room is spacious and airy, the family says, to which she replies, "The cold is greater than the view."
The film suggests that the poor will always be metaphorically left in the cold, even detailing historical precedent with Hundertwasser's illustrated explanation that this apartment configuration is a holdover from slavery. Recife's people have become victims of their own architecture, a condition that existed long before the climate change; as a succession of images of tall, "sterile and boring" buildings separated by narrow streets ensues, Cold Tropics also suggests that it will continue even after life goes back to what is considered normal.
The entrance into the contemporary world of Neighboring Sounds, in which children play in a fenced—in area while a row of white-clad nannies stand nearby, seems to confirm this. Neighboring Sounds shares Cold Tropics's pessimism over how Recife's architecture has helped further the mindset of what Hundertwasser calls "the dehumanization of the city," in which the residents' fear of violence has alienated them by leading them to close themselves off from each other. But it also shares the earlier film's optimism about the possible strength of human connection, even within confines. Just as Cold Tropics shows the sun coming out only in a part of Recife where people dance and sing together, Neighboring Sounds ends with each of its protagonists in unity with family members. If the morality of what its characters do to protect themselves and their family members can be questioned, it is because the film accurately reflects how people are capable of being—hostile, paranoid, aggressive, and loving, and sometimes displaying seemingly contradictory qualities at the same time.
For the filmmaker, the major differences between Neighboring Sounds and his group's short films were budget and running time, and in a way he's right—the continual development of his themes has been as fluid and as natural as the transition from the words at the end of Cold Tropics (a dedication to his parents, "who loved when it rained in Recife") to those at the beginning of Neighboring Sounds ("To Joselice"). His first feature began its Brazilian theatrical run last Friday, and in addition to promoting it and continuing his Fundação Joaquim Nabuco programming work, Mendonça is raising money for a second feature, as well as developing another short. It is safe to bet that his films will continue to transform a variety of sources, from pop culture and from history read and lived, on Recife streets in front of his own critical, loving eyes. "Genre, this word is awful," Mendonça once told an interviewer. While one can see and feel many different legacies in his films, they finally belong to no tradition but his own.
Note: Though not discussed above, one of Mendonça's key film references is Eduardo Coutinho's Pernambuco-set documentary masterpiece Twenty Years Later, the recent recipient of a beautiful digital restoration.