O som ao redor

When the film by Kleber Mendonça Filho was shown in Recife, the city it unflatteringly portrays, many in the audience must have felt, like me, a wry familiarity even with its blackest elements, such as the looming violence (largely seen through its distorting influence on the characters rather than in the pornographic treatment of some Brazilian films); we all know people like that, and maybe recognise them glancingly in ourselves. As such, O som ao redor is a comedy of manners. But does the familiarity of inside knowledge privilege the local audience? According to the theory, one would hope not: the point of realism is not to make the audience say to themselves “That’s just what it’s like”, but to draw broader illumination from the particular.
A case in point is American cinema, which is so widely known as to exercise a formative influence on the tenor of life in quite far-flung places. When I first visited the States as an adult, I was suprised by how true to cinema it all was: the atomised suburbia, the narcissistic “characters”, the bad driving, the counterpoint of bristliness and plastic smiles — surely not all were life imitating art?
Or what about, say, Taiwanese cinema? Not knowing the context shouldn’t matter, but surely it does make a difference; and isn’t that what literary criticism does, bringing the context (also the literary context) to bear on the work?
Perhaps the consequence is that the canon is doomed to be a provincial formation, in this case, a US-centric one. Worse, the problem of missing context applies just as much in this (for now) privileged centre as it does when reading Horace or Ang Lee (thinking of the more Chinese part of his oeuvre).

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