‘Pictures Of Ghosts’ Review: Kléber Mendonça Filho’s Triumphant Return To Documentaries Is A Loving Ode To Cinemas

In 2008, Kléber Mendonça Filho released “Crítico,” a documentary building upon his years of experience as a film critic to weave a rich chronicling of cinephilia that gathered over 70 critics and filmmakers to discuss cinema in all of its joys and contradictions. Fifteen years later and following great acclaim as a fiction feature director, Filho returns to documentary to investigate some of the themes he first prodded upon in his debut with “Pictures of Ghosts.”

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As with Godard and Paris, Fellini and Rome, Scorsese, and New York, Filho is a filmmaker whose craft is deeply intertwined with his love of a city, in this case, the Pernambuco capital of Recife, in the north-east of Brazil. Recife is the background of Filho’s first two fiction films, 2013’s “Neighbouring Sounds” and 2016’s “Aquarius,” and a prominent presence in many of his shorts. “Pictures of Ghosts” is the director’s attempt to trace back his love of cinema to not only the abstract cinematic qualities of the capital but its physical, present cultural footprint. 

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There is a quiet beauty in decay — the slow crumbling of once-sturdy structures taken down by time’s gentle yet unforgiving hands. Filho’s latest is a rich snapshot of this process. Split into three chapters; the film begins with archival images of Recife in the 60s, Janet Leigh’s visit aptly acting as the starting point of the director’s historical overview of the city. From Janet Leigh to the warmth of his mother’s apartment in the neighborhood of Setúbal, the centerpiece of Chapter 1: a personal, heartfelt telling of Filho’s early days living with his public servant mother and young brother in a large, terraced apartment, a few hundred meters away from the beachfront.  

That apartment lent itself to Filho’s youthful curiosity, friends coming through the wooden double doors covered in fake blood, bodies lying on the floor as young Kléber held a camera up above, chairs acting as improvised platforms as the corridors of the apartment filled to the brim with budding filmmakers. The wealth of Filho’s personal archives is a marvel, images of teenagers in ragged black clothes fading into brief clips of “Neighbouring Sounds,” the permanence of the physical juxtaposed to the maturing of the man who spent most of his life inviting others to create art within the sturdy walls of the Setúbal home. 

The reliability of his mother’s place, which would eventually become the director’s home and where he would raise his two young boys — present here as moving reminders of the beauty in passion passed between generations — serves as a pained contrast to the phenomenon Filho explores in Chapter Two when the documentary leaves the cocoon of Setúbal towards Recife’s old town. Aerial images of the Boa Vista bridge usher the viewer into the historical city center where once stood three imposing street cinemas, this opportune cultural triangulation shaping Filho’s first steps towards cinephilia.

The great Brazilian capitals, different from its European counterparts, have neglected their once regal centers in favor of the economic potential of expansion, the rich and middle-class exodus into suburban islands turning the city center into derelict lands. Filho finds the beauty in the decrepit when capturing Recife’s historical center not only through the loving lens of nostalgia but the compassionate gaze of the referential. The director makes his way through the sinuous staircases that lead into claustrophobic projection booths, recalling details of the lives of projectionists with the precision of those who understand the value of memory. 

While told as a historical documentation of the street cinema culture that catapulted Recife into one of the most important distribution hubs in South America, “Pictures of Ghosts” never leaves the realm of the personal. Filho’s lulling voice recounts factual knowledge of the city’s many screening rooms and all their technical details without ever excluding the human value in the chimerical equation that is exhibition. People hide in booths made saunas as reels of film roll through their fingers in careful inspection and neatly dressed stand by the grand entrances of equally grand cinemas, welcoming in people who might have their lives transformed by the time they cross those big doors again. 

As it enters its final chapter, “Pictures of Ghosts” makes the case for cinemas as churches. As it happens, many of Recife’s street cinemas are now Evangelical temples, the structures that once housed world premieres of “Deep Throat” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” converted into pantheons of morality. Filho is subtle in his criticism, much more concerned with what places are rather than what they are not. “Cinemas can be places of kindness,” he says while the camera focuses on the good wishes sent by the Cinema São Luiz marquee during the COVID lockdown. This kindness, which imbues the director’s every word and frame, speaks to Roger Ebert’s great definition of movies: a machine that generates empathy. What a beautiful thing. [A]

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