Film festivals are great platforms for undiscovered filmmakers, and we love them for that, but they're also opportunities to see high-profile foreign titles — which have a larger Stateside following than ever, thanks to the Internet — that might not otherwise come to Los Angeles. While LAFF used to excel at showcasing new works by major auteurs (look at its stellar 2009 lineup), in the last few years it has emphasized comparatively minor discoveries, creating a loss for Angelenos hoping to keep up with film's global discourse.
Still, several titles in this year's LAFF International Showcase are worth catching. Foremost is Neighboring Sounds, a subtle and tense feature debut from Brazilian filmmaker (and film critic) Kleber Mendonça Filho. Set in Recife, a sprawling coastal city in Brazil, it traces interwoven lives within an upscale apartment complex and its immediate environs, a volatile mix of middle-class housing and derelict streets.
From the start, the ensemble characters are carefully defined in relation to one another, even if their spatial and causal frictions mostly generate distrust and unease. Francisco (W.J. Solha) is the aging patriarch who owns much of the neighborhood; his orphaned grandson, João (Gustavo Jahn), shows apartments to prospective tenants and romances Sofia (Irma Brown), a young woman whose childhood home is being redeveloped. Three freelance security guards offer their services to Francisco, but turn a blind eye to a drug dealer's liaisons with a nearby housewife, Bia (Maeve Jinkings).
Filho's command of the wide-screen frame is impressive (not for nothing is he a professed fan of John Carpenter); nearly every shot is a study in architectural space. Airy balconies showcase vertical high-rises and ocean views, skirting the network of concrete walls, barred windows and rampant surveillance below. Sound is often the only human connection, and Filho's largely scoreless, aggressive audio mix emphasizes the buzz of mysterious sources and ominous rhythms.
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Neighboring Sounds conveys the self-perpetuating fear and paranoia in its fortresslike setting (its three acts are titled "Guard Dogs, "Night Guards" and "Bodyguards") and situates the tensions within the historical divide between owners and servants, rich and poor. Beginning with a montage of vintage photographs of the region's rural past and ending with a dark secret that explodes in violence, the film suggests that the present may consist of radical makeovers, but the long arc of history remains a permanent force.
The International Showcase also boasts three standout titles in the restrained, observational mode. The Strawberry Tree is a documentary homage to a Cuban fishing village before it was decimated by 2008's Hurricane Ike. The film's beautifully composed, static shots favor low angles that manage both to monumentalize the villagers and capture their many unglamorous, ground-level activities: grinding coffee, fixing a flat tire with a condom, repairing a fishing net. Filmmaker Simone Rapisarda Casanova's own dialogue with his subjects draws out their earthy, resilient character during, quite literally, the calm before the storm.
Another compelling portrait of a unique historical moment, Return to Burma captures, through concealed cameras, the economic and cultural mood of a country recently freed after 21 years of military rule. A Burmese laborer returns home from abroad to visit his family and consider business prospects. With the relaxed, conversational feel of an Eric Rohmer film but set in rare Burmese locations — intimate cafés and street markets, buses and brothels — the film is a thoughtful exploration of a country in transition.
Less a record of a place than a challenge to perceptions, Denis Coté's Bestiaire contemplates human observation of captive (and stuffed/mounted) animals in a variety of unidentified locations, including holding pens and a zoo. At its best, this unusual documentary, comprised of shots that only partially reveal animals moving in and out of frame, evokes a kind of fragmented gaze that de-emphasizes PBS-style clarity and photogenic poses in favor of more random and surprising glimpses of the animals. Close-ups of zebra hooves skittering loudly on a metal floor feel claustrophobic and disturbing; a taxidermist dismantling a bird only to reassemble it as naturally as possible strikes a decidedly absurdist note.