Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Pictures of Ghosts (2023) dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho

A masterclass in cinematic love letters


Swooned by the methodical editing and scene placement of jointed archival footage, I had suspected that Pictures of Ghosts was not director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s first rodeo in filmmaking. Afterwards, I found that Mendonça’s last film was 2019’s Bacurau, the pandemic-sleeper banger that successfully took to a slow world-building medium within a small Brazilian village before sending the film off with an explosively violent sequence so gratifying that it had both revealed and scratched a years-long itch that I never knew I had. Though it might surprise a few that Mendonça winds down with an autobiographical piece for his next project, the patience and vision behind Bacurau is evident in this personal treasure.

The documentary’s place of interest is Recife, one of Brazil’s largest cities that has historical ties to shipping, WWII, dictatorship, and Mendonça’s childhood. Some photos that flash onscreen indicate tourism; Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis are caught strolling down a sidewalk, while touring musicians like Pink Floyd and Johnny Guitar are caught sitting at the ledge of one of the city’s fifty-something bridges. Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas in Portuguese) is divided into three parts, demarcated by a title card. The first one is “The Setúbal Apartment,” which is the chronological starting point of Mendonça’s film career and of his life, as it is the household where he was raised.

A filmmaker making a documentary about how films changed their lives doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but as directing styles are so vastly different, so are cinematic love languages. Mendonça’s steady, intentional voice lends a hand into the deliberated blending between homemade footage and professional scenes (some are taken from his previous films, such as Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius) of the same location, creating a passage-of-time effect within a few seconds. A recent example of this would be the end scene of The Zone of Interest, but Pictures of Ghosts‘ intentions are more welcoming. In this segment, the apartment interior feels like a secondary character, adorned with the aspirations of a burgeoning filmmaker (a poster of Barry Lyndon is found in home footage, while a poster for In the Mood for Love is found as a prop background). It is pretty cool to watch, but the film feels like a macroscopic launch when we reach the second part. Titled “Os Cinemas do Centro do Recife,” Mendonça’s explorations into the heart of Recife feels like finding out that your world belongs to a bigger galaxy.

Describing a film’s authenticity can sometimes feel less objective and more of an insider’s secret, but the passion behind Pictures of Ghosts operate in a “show, don’t tell” manner. Mendonça provides a narrative that is mostly recalling anecdotes about himself or stories relating to the city’s history or the movies he remembers. However, the final cut gives the impression that there is an existing stockpile of B-rolls and shots that Mendonça found interesting, which was given a precise whittling to a natural, beautiful poem (I’m reminded a bit of John Wilson’s How To series, whose meticulous recording of the mundane set to a half-controlled, half-stream-of-consciousness never fails to make me ask myself, “Which came first: the narrative or the editing?”). Mendonça shares a lot of close-ups of marquees that he found relevant or amusing (such as Jodie Foster starring in a film simply branded as Silencio), but some might catch a glimpse of movies that may have not made it across seas. A poster for 1974’s Amor estranho amor is seen in a peeking Tom’s kind of viewpoint, which might emulate a young Mendonça’s perspective when coming across an erotic film displayed in public).

What adds a layered structure to Mendonça’s scenic diary is the historical context of some of the now-defunct theaters that were located in different parts of Recife. The former eye-catching Art Palácio, for example, had opened under the German distribution company UFA known for propaganda, before screening adult films in the ’70s and ’80s. Mendonça relays a voice to a particular projectionist, dubbed Mr. Alexandre, who had to operate with censorship during Brazilian dictatorship (though most of his displayed grievances lie in having to show The Godfather for four months). In a touching conversation, Mendonça asks Alexandre to share his memory of the Art Palácio’s last night. Alexandre, remembering that it was on a Tuesday where he was usually scheduled, was casual about his usual duties, but wistfully concludes, “[Well], I’ll lock up the cinema with a key of tears.”

In terms of the ghost element in the film, there is one literal reference where Mendonça shares a photo of a blurred, unidentified figure, not having a clue where the picture came from. But the more obvious phantoms are the landmarks that no longer stand as tall as they did before. While Recife’s reverse gentrification has contributed to the city’s bradycardia, Mendonça still makes the act of reminiscence a story worthwhile. But even at a micro level, Pictures of Ghosts is the kind of biodoc that everyone has playing in their heads, wishing that it could come to fruition for others to watch.

Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas)
dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho
93 mins

Screening through 2/27 @ Brattle Theatre – click here for showtimes and ticket info!

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