The New York Times reviewed the movie, making it a critics' pick, and wrote: "The scope of his movie is narrow, but its ambitions are enormous, and it accomplishes nothing less than the illumination of the peculiar state of Brazilian (and not only Brazilian) society."
The Times separately profiled the film's director, Kleber Mendonça FIlho, who said:
“Brazilian film has to break the mold...99 percent of Brazilian filmmakers are middle class or upper middle class or bourgeois, as I am, yet most of the time they’re making films about people they don’t know that much about and subjects they haven’t mastered. We need more films that don’t take place in a favela or the backlands and aren’t about some guy who is really poor and living beneath a bridge. Maybe then we can talk about a new Brazilian aesthetic.”
First, let me say that while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, it's not perfect. It's slow, and there are occasionally strange moments that defy explanation. That said, it really is a fantastic cross-section of modern Brazilian culture, and a fascinating reflection on how despite being a modern country, in some respects, some things haven't changed at all.
Right off the bat, this movie breaks the mold by taking place outside of the usual suspects for successful Brazilian movies: Rio, São Paulo, and the sertão. It takes place in one of Recife's wealthiest neighborhoods, with the large majority of the movie focusing on scenes on a single street. It's not about gangs, or drug trafficking (aside from two brief scenes involving a resourceful weed dealer), nor a quixotic adventure in the dry backlands. It really focuses on the lives of a number of families living on a block in Recife. As much as I love Rio, it's really refreshing to see a well-done Brazilian movie go somewhere else, especially a city as interesting as Recife.
One of the best things about the movie is the attention to detail and nuances of every day Brazilian life, from the row of shampoo and soap bottles on the window shelf in the shower to the old-fashioned cafeteira for an afternoon coffee to the unsweetened fresh fruit juice at a family meal. This is not Hollywood-ized; what you see in the movie is really a view of how things look. There's also a strange little detail I noticed in which one of the maids is wearing a donated American skiing tee-shirt, which reads "America Downhill" on the back. Subliminal message, perhaps?
The film has a number of really interesting themes. The overarching theme is a deep-seated anxiety about security that pervades the whole movie. Recife is one of the most violent cities in Brazil with high crime rates, and the residents of the block are all, in different ways, terrified by violence. But in the movie, it's the threat of violence that you see, rather than violence itself. It's important because this obsession with security is pervasive in many big cities in Brazil, where armored cars, armed guards, and paranoia are a way of life for some.
The next theme to note is the universal use of technology and consumer culture. Flat screen TVs adorn the characters' apartments while the guards watch videos on their phones; in one scene, a kid uses a laptop to show a video compilation he made of the doorman falling asleep. Characters reveal the need to consume; there's even an odd fight about who bought a bigger new TV. One character blows up when an imported electronic product is ruined.
There's also an interesting dynamic between a rua e a casa (the street and the home), something Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta has written about. So much of the movie takes place in people's homes or in their yards, so you really get a snapshot of what home life means. Plus, some of the characters you see in their homes are often quite different in the scenes in the street.
Finally, one of the most interesting concepts in the movie is that of class relations and their evolution (or lack thereof) since slavery ended. The relationship the characters have with servants and service workers seem to echo the relationship between slaves and masters, albeit in a modern world. Construction is ubiquitous and massive apartment complexes are taking over the quiet block in the city. Meanwhile, the plantation house in the nearby countyside that belongs to the local coronel is crumbling, and the small country town the house is in appears to be a relic of another century. But even though the forces of modernity are blazing ahead, can the characters--or Recife, or Brazil, for that matter--escape the past?