Saturday, October 20, 2012

Town and Country (Neighboring Sounds and Liberal Arts)

Kleber Mendonca Filho, the director of Neighboring Sounds (2012), is intensely quiet in person, with a manner that suggests he isn't sizing you up so much as taking you in, like a refracting telescope. I met him a few weeks ago on a research visit where I work, which I mention not to name-drop (because we all know of no critics who do that), but to convey how the pleasures of his debut film capture the essence of the filmmaker behind it. Neighboring Sounds covers a few days in a neighborhood of Recife, Brazil, and it's the kind of ensemble picture that shines light on a particular character or group of characters before focusing on the next. A respectable businessman named Joao (Gustavo Jahn) negotiates with his thief cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda) for a CD-player pinched from the car of his new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), only to get another stolen player back instead. Both are related to a powerful patriarch (W. J. Solha) whose casual sovereignty over the neighborhood must be entreated by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), head of a security team that begins patrolling the area for shady customers. Mendonca Filho is interested in all of these people as well as the hangers-on around them, like the group of tenants at a meeting voting whether or not to can a security guard sleeping on duty. He has a good ear for idle talk and a keen eye for authenticity, as when a housewife down the block (Maeve Jinkings) lies down on the couch, exhausted from a howling dog keeping her up all night, as her children give her a vigorous massage.

There aren't as many characters in Neighboring Sounds as there are in films like Nashville or Short Cuts, yet the movie sustains a sophisticated visual and aural technique (plenty of panning zooms, or zooming pans) that envelopes you the way Altman's films often did. It doesn't resonate as much as those movies - or films like Inarritu's Amores Perros and Haneke's Cache, both of which Mendonca Filho also appears to reference - but Neighboring Sounds still offers a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture filled with a few sparks of recognition.

Liberal Arts (2012), the deeply likeable new comedy from writer-director-star Josh Radnor, showed me a slice of life I know all too well. (I caught it - as you may - on On Demand.) Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old admissions officer at a university in New York who returns to his alma mater in rural Ohio to commemorate the retirement of his mentor (played by Richard Jenkins). The Ohio institution is never named but take my word for it that it is Kenyon College, located in Gambier, about an hour into cow country northeast of Columbus. I taught there for a couple of summers and recognized every square inch (all twenty-seven of them) of that tiny, beguiling campus; (I also have reason to suspect that the Jenkins character is based on a recently retired former colleague, but I need to confirm that.) Radnor knows it even better. He went to school there, and both his his camera and his script are lovingly attenuated to the details of campus life: the way you can feel lonely at a party yet comfortable by yourself at a bookstore or neighborhood bar.

Jesse strikes up a friendship - and, later, when he returns to New York, an epistolary correspondence - with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old theater major whose name suggests the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that the character, as written and played, thankfully belies. She's a real person, not a fantasy; and Radnor navigates all the traps deftly, aware of the obstacles in such a relationship but also not automatically nullifying the possibility of its working. Liberal Arts could have been a Doc Hollywood kind of comedy, where the protagonist finds happiness in a utopia far away from the big city. But if New York bewilders Jesse at times, he sees beauty and potential there too.

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