Neighboring Sounds: Revisiting Engenhos in the Brazilian Middle-Class
Author: Victoria Paiter, student in anthropology
Located in the north-east of Brazil (Pernambuco) the first scenes of the film show photos in black and white which seem to bring memories from the beginning of the 20th century when the influence of senhores do engenho and their properties, casa-grande and senzala increased. Senhores do engenho were the people in Brazil who owned a great amount of land which were predominately used for sugar cane plantation. Those lands were organized basically in three parts: casa-grande, the big house where the land owner, his family and house slaves lived; senzala, where the other slaves lived; and the engenho, the sugar cane mill per se. Senhores do engenho or masters of the sugar cane mill were naturally on top of the hierarchy in these engenhos and as a consequence had the last word on everything happening on the land, including people lives. In addition, senhores do engenho never did their work alone: their right-hand man or capataz would be always ready to take care of the security, management but also any other inglorious, dubious tasks.
After the picture slides a girl on pink roller skates is shown together with a boy on a bicycle walking through parked cars on what seems to be the parking lot of a condominium building, when the girl enters at the indoors sports area of the condominium, full with kids and their well uniformed nannies. Followed by scenes building up the environment of the film: a worker repairing a window, a teenager couple secretly making out. Everything always surrounded by walls and fences, a supposedly safe, urban environment.
There are two main stories in the film situated around the middle class daily-life: the annoyance Bia, the housewife, feels towards the neighbors’ dog and the arrival of an amateur private security company to the neighborhood. The housewife storyline is perceived through her relationship both with the internal world, here represented by her children, her barely existent husband and the housekeeper, and the external world, which is represented by the neighbor’s dog, the workers delivering home appliances, water or even marijuana and the envious neighbor. Bia represents a middle-class mom who worries about the future of her children and for her or, fitting the middle-class stereotype, what will grant a good future for her children is taking them to a private school. Since Brazil is globalized and the international business has a strong presence, she also makes sure that her children have the opportunity to learn two different languages – English and Mandarin.
In the scene when the housekeeper accidentally damages the electronic device used by the housewife to control the neighbor’s dog barking leading to Bia mistreating the housekeeper it is possible to draw a parallel to analyze how the hierarchical power system widely spread back in the Casa-Grande and Senzala days is still deep-seated specially into some specific working environments and sectors of the Brazilian society.
When Bia receives the ordered marijuana from the guy selling water, the relationship with the external world is exposed via one of the many ways of jeitinho, a widely known and somewhat controversial way of dealing with rules within the Brazilian society. Marijuana is illegal in Brazil, being it consumption, selling or buying purposes, however, both characters find a way how to deal with this prohibition by using bottled water sale as an alibi.
The term jeitinho, studied for the first time by the historian and anthropologist Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, can be seen as one of the film’s most emblematic elements involving the amateur private security team. When Clodoaldo, the head of the private security company, talks with João and his uncle offering his services and the uncle asks whether the security team have any guns Clodoaldo answers: “Honestly, I can neither say we have guns nor we do not have them.” If he cannot say his team has guns, this implies it is more likely they do not have any license to use one. However, he also affirms that he cannot say they do not have any guns, implying that if the team has any guns they more likely are not registered which is questionable especially for a private security company. Another good example of jeitinho can be seen when João shows a flat to a possible buyer. The woman, based on religious and cultural background (Brazil has the biggest Catholic population in the world), tries to find a way to lower the condominium selling fee by mentioning a possible suicide that recently happened in the building.
This film is not only about jeitinhos. Francisco, João’s grandfather, is a man of power and influence. The family, more specifically Francisco, is the owner of most of the condominiums in the neighborhood and as seen later in the film, the patriarch has also a land referred by the characters as engenho. It is a big piece of land, as we see when João, his grandfather and Sofia, then João’s girlfriend go to the place for what seems to be a weekend. A big house, big piece of land, the times have changed and the senhores do engenho way of life is different now. Francisco and his family is living in the city, not in a big house, but big flats. They do not have slaves as it used to be in the old times, but housekeepers at some circumstances are treated as almost being part of the family.
Francisco even has an updated version of a capataz, a very loyal worker who ended up being killed in what Francisco suspects to be a vendetta. A very precious insight happens right after Francisco reveals the incident to Clodoaldo and his brother in the end of the film. Without spoiling the end of the film for those who still haven’t watched it, the last word told in the film is in metalanguage connecting with the beginning of the first scene: a fence.