Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho is best known for his three internationally-acclaimed fiction features: Neighbouring Sounds (2013), Aquarius (2016) and Bacurau (2019; co-directed by Juliano Dornelles). Pictures of Ghosts is a documentary. Yet this is hardly new territory for the helmer. Few people are aware that the director had already made a string of non-fiction movies, and that – despite making his first feature at the age of 45 – he devoted his entire life to cinema as a movie-goer, a videomaker, a filmmaker and a film programmer. Mendonca Filho started experimenting with film during his youth in his hometown of Recife, a bustling metropolis located in Northeastern Brazil.
Blending shelf-shot footage, archive images, clips from his own movies, and narrated by the filmmaker himself, Pictures of Ghosts is divided into three parts: the filmmaker’s neighbourhood, the movie theatres and the churches. Images of the past are a regular occurrence in Mendonca Filho’s filmography: his three feature films open with archive pictures of Brazil in the early 20th century.
In the first part, we learn how the Setubal district helped to shape Mendonca Filho and his films. We see images of how the streets have changed over the decades, with colonial estate houses and buildings progressively replaced by high rise structures. Violence soared, forcing residents to build towering walls around their properties. This is visible in Neighbouring Sounds, which is entirely filmed in the surroundings of the house where the director grew up. The large padlocks and barred gates look so menacing that people thought they were part of production design. A peculiar anecdote about his neighbour’s incessantly barking dog Nico explains the title of the movie, and the strange ways Brazilians find to protect themselves. Mendonca carefully observes the inevitable and unforgiving consequences of time, with buildings naturally decaying (termites catalysing the process) and eventually collapsing, giving way to new constructions (this cycle is the central topic of Aquarius).
The second part is the most historically fascinating one. We see pictures of the still-standing and also the defunct movie theatres of Recife. Audience numbers, crumbling projectors, film posters and even a short visit by Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis with their two small daughters in the early 1960s add some extra colour flavour to the journey. The Art Palacio Cinema was run by Ufa, Hitler’s film arm, in the 1930s. That’s because Brazilian president Getulio Vargas was very sympathetic towards Nazi ideals. Cinema Moderno has now become a large supermarket as featured in Aquarius. The lead of Mendonca Filho’s second feature is in fact a film star that he often watched on the silver screen during his youth: Sonia Braga. We are also informed that Recife was once of the two film hubs in Brazil, ensuring that films were widely distributed in the upper half of the nation. This changed in the turn of the century, when Sao Paulo became the only such place. This triggered the partial decadence of the film industry in Northeastern city.
The third part is barely distinguishable from the second, as the “churches” in reality refer to the movie theatres of yore and vice-versa. The Sao Luiz Cinema was erected in 1952 on the site of an Anglican church. Three prominent cinemas became evangelical temples in the 1980s. The movie theatre is a place to get on your knees and worship Glauber Rocha and Hitchcock, the director ascertains. The seventh art and religion have a profound affinity. Both are worthy of our devotion.
Pictures of Ghosts is Mendonca Filho’s most personal film to date. Similarly to Petra Costa in Elena (2012) and The Edge of Democracy (2019), the documentarist’s life story becomes a proxy for something else (Petra’s sister in her first film, her country in her second film, and the history of Recife/movie theatres in Mendonca Filho’s doc). For both Brazilian directors, autobiography becomes history, and history becomes autobiography.
The final scene is delightful. The director gently mocks the nature of cinema and the futility of stardom during an impromptu conversation with an Uber driver, while also inserting just the right amount of poetic freedom into his otherwise formal documentary. A tiny pinch of humour makes the film very flavoursome. Mendonca Filho is the master of subtleness. His narrative devices are urgent in their simplicity, promptly evoking emotion and laughter. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face!
Pictures of Ghosts premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival (when this piece was originally written), where the Brazilian director is both a familiar face and a regular guest. Also showing at he 41st Turin Film Festival.