Sunday, October 8, 2023


Retratos fantasmas (2023) - Mendonça Filho Pictures of Ghosts Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose films- Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius and Bacurau became arthouse darlings in international festival circuit and in turn, made his hometown of Recife, a city in northeastern Brazil, a center for a surging new Brazilian cinema. Living and working there in his beloved city for the last forty years, it is only natural that his new film, Pictures of Ghosts/Retratos de fantasmas, is a love letter to Recife. But the film is not merely all melancholic look back on the past. With the film, he is using his personal story, through the geography of the neighborhood and the historiography of cinema to illustrate the rapidly changing nation, and it's a charmer.

Mendonça Filho, who has seen his beloved city morphing into skyscrapers and shopping malls, fondly remembers his upbringing. His single mom Jocelice, a local historian, brought him and his siblings in a two-story apartment building, which has been a location for his several films, all the way back when he was making films with other cinephile friends using VHS camera, making action/horror films, to his more recent films. Part one of the film is dedicated to this house and neighboring buildings.

Physical buildings can be torn down and repurposed, but people and animals who inhabit the area linger in one way or another. The filmmaker, a well versed in cinema history and studies, puts an importance on oral history and ephemerals when drawing a complete picture of the place. There is a funny bit on a neighborhood dog, whose day and night barking that drove everyone crazy. The barking so distinctive and recognizable and ended up in many of the filmmaker's films unintentionally. Decades later, he was startled by the barking, only to find out someone was watching one of his films in the living room. Pictures of the Ghosts are filled with stories like that.

There are no shortage of local historical artifacts and news reel footage, including Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh's visit to the city in 1961. Chic boutique and luxury shops dotted the street near the riverside. Part two is dedicated to the cinemas and downtown Recife. Back in the heydays, being an important commercial hub of the northeastern Brazil, the downtown was booming with foreign investments and money pouring in. And it hosted many opulent cinema houses, where Mendonça Filho spent most of his teenage days. Now the money is gone, the downtown Recife is a hull of its glorious past, with faded buildings and most of its gilded cinema palaces either abandoned or turned into a shopping mall. In Pictures, the person in charge of changing the marquee of the cinemas become timekeepers, as the film titles appear in the background of historical photos in the papers, some of their letters obscured by trees, traffic and even marching soldiers during military incursions, presenting unintended Godardian wordplay. We see the lobby cards, movie posters and other movie paraphernalia being sold in an outdoor market outside those closed movie houses.

Mendonça Filho also has a video footage of a projectionist of one of the great cinemas he frequented with, asking earnest questions about his career and the prospect of the cinema house closing its doors. And the shot of one of the projectors kept in a locked room in now a shopping mall for posterity's sake.

The part three is 'Churches and Holy Ghosts'. The filmmaker connects an early Anglican church becoming a cinema house, then turning into Evangelical church. His criticism of the rise of Evangelicals (including the extreme right-wing Bolsonaro regime) in the country, is there, as he bluntly puts it, "Evangelicals bought cinema." The movie ends with whimsical taxi ride, throwing shades on Hollywood's superhero movies. The 80s Michael Mann vibe with night lights reflecting on the car, as it rides the bridge at night with smooth jazz - reminds the audience that the Brazilian director undoubtedly grew up loving the 80s Hollywood cinema.

Pictures of Ghosts is a loving, intimate documentary on ephemeral nature of our lives. Our loved ones grow old and die, buildings get torn down, video footages disintegrate, but there is evidence of those lives lived and experienced all over, if you know where to look. Combining his own experience and his love of cinema, Mendonça Filho serves as our expert guide to his beloved city of Recife. And It is definitely my choice for the documentary of the year.