Pictures Of Ghosts


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Kleber Mendonça Filho: “Cinema of course is magic. But cinema is also a product. And these buildings, they are machines built to sell movies.”
"These are the nooks and crannies where the ghosts still hang out, whistling in the dark, eager to haunt anew a crowd."

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Pictures Of Ghosts (Brazil’s Oscar submission and a highlight in the Main Slate of the 61st New York Film Festival), shot by Pedro Sotero (with additional photography from Maira Iabrudi, Marcelo Lordello, and Mendonça Filho) and produced by Emilie Lesclaux (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius with Sônia Braga, and Bacurau with Udo Kier) transports us to Recife, the director’s hometown, the capital of Pernambuco, Brazil and unravels the history of its big cinemas - those gone and those still standing strong, what was and what has become. But before that, he takes us home to the apartment where he lived on and off for 40 years.

We see old photographs and moving images of family life and film life, how his mother remodelled the place, how his brother Múcio, an architect, added an Oscar Niemeyer touch to the roof terrace, and as the uncanny kernel of the film, the picture of a “real ghost.” There is the street from Neighboring Sounds (a highlight of New Directors/New Films in 2012), ghost dog Nico returns, buildings in the area are going up and coming down, the termites from Aquarius pop in for a visit. Accompanied by the right music, even looking out the window for some cats becomes grand cinema.

Part II drops us off downtown, where all the spectacular cinemas were located, drawing in the masses during the second half of the 20th century. Kleber’s soothing voice-over explains the changes the city has seen. And there is always the same bridge, over decades, that allowed you to see the marquees of the movie theatres, announcing which ghosts would be dwelling there for the next week.

Trolley cars and fruit vendors, children playing, flaneurs, and people off to work and even Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis on a visit to Recife can be seen on that bridge. This is not a town for people with gephyrophobia. Superbly edited archival footage and the director’s own research projects from the Nineties paint a tableau of the lost and found, the inertia of the real and the unrelenting pull from what lies ahead. “Futuristic films are also documentaries” he states, because what tells us more about the status quo than the dreams or nightmares we project onto what is about to be?

One of the movie palaces, which was built as an UFA theatre in 1940 and had a German manager, sported a fantastic staircase and held many stories Kleber heard about from Alexandre Moura, the projectionist there in the early Nineties. Ornate inlays on the sidewalk still remind people of what used to be the overpass from one world to another.

Cinema is the medium of ghosts. And cinemas were the places where they could get in touch with us. Now that technology made sure that the ghosts could also enter our homes and even our pockets to follow us around wherever we go, many of the old movie palaces, their former homes, have become superfluous and were turned into something else - a supermarket, a place of prayer, a gym. Somewhere in these buildings, though, are remnants of the past, architectural oddities that could only stem from one thing. These are the nooks and crannies where the ghosts still hang out, whistling in the dark, eager to haunt anew a crowd.

Chapter III explores ghosts and holy ghosts. Two cinemas reopened as evangelical churches with no changes made to the décor. Others became, or stayed, commercial movie houses providing blockbusters, which were not only big American action fare, but also Bruno Barreto’s 1976 hit Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands with Sônia Braga, who would later star in Kleber’s Aquarius (a highlight in the Main Slate of the 54th New York Film Festival) and shine in his Bacurau, with Juliano Dornelles (Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner and a highlight in the Main Slate of the 57th New York Film Festival).

Pictures Of Ghosts ends on a lovely note, with Kleber in the back seat of an Uber, which feels a bit like a stage coach, as he rides through the nightly city while chatting with the driver whose special powers are enhanced by listening to Herb Alpert’s Rise.

Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2023
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A portrait of the city of Recife, re-envisioned in its 20th Century glory through the remains of the cinema palaces which were central to its busy social milieu.

Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho

Year: 2023

Runtime: 93 minutes

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