Pictures of Ghosts

Writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho ("Bacurau") began his career as a film programmer and critic but started making films in the Recife apartment his mother, activist and abolitionist historian Joselice Jucá, moved the family to after separating from his father.  This apartment, which she remodeled twice and which has subsequently gone through one more, will comprise the first of his three chapters on the radical changes his home town and its cinemas have undergone in “Pictures of Ghosts.”

Laura's Review: A-

In his first feature film, “Neighboring Sounds,” Filho shot in this same apartment building, opening with a dissolve from pictures of slaves on sugar cane plantations to the middle class now surrounding themselves with security precautions in the same space, a barking dog prominent.  We can see the ghosts of Filho’s own past pervading his prior films, including this revelatory look into the mother and city which helped shape him. 

The filmmaker begins with an overhead aerial shot of his home town’s Church Square, an open space with trees and greenery mere blocks from the landmark hotel once visited by Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.  Telling us that hotel was torn down, Filho dissolves into the same space today, a sea of soulless high rises.  As he tells us, time changes things, but there is very little evidence of it being for the better.

Ghosts are evident in the movies and photographs of people now dead, Filho showing an old interview clip of his mother and pictures of the two of them, the woman who supported his dreams and instilled his sense of social justice having died at the young age of 54.  We feel her loss.  He shows a photograph taken in her living room with the unmistakable shape of a ghostly interloper, the picture having caused a sensation among his family and friends.  And then there is Nico, the neighbor’s dog he hears barking on this return visit, before recalling that Nico died years ago, the barks emanating from a neighbor’s television showing his movie “Neighboring Sounds” in which Nico was a constant presence.  Nico’s ghost invites memories of his owners whose house was allowed to fall into disrepair, termites causing its roof to collapse, the building taken over by so many cats that even the animal loving Filho was forced to put barbed wire up, a recollection which bounces us right back into the security theme of “Neighboring Sounds.”

Chapters two and three focus on Recife’s downtown cinema palaces and their relation to churches, both literally and figuratively.  The director travelled downtown multiple times a week to luxuriate in the theatrical experience, but one by one those cinemas disappeared, a couple repurposed as Evangelical churches, one an appliance store, another into a bizarre shopping mall.  Only one remains today and the downtown itself has fallen into ugly disrepair, no longer the bustling heart of the city celebrating the world’s ‘second best carnival.’  The ‘heart’ of Recipe has moved to the south side, a sign of gentrification, the subject of Filho’s “Aquarius,” which he reminds us of here pointing to a graffiti covered building where he shot Sonia Braga in that sophomore film.  It was the former home of the Moderna, the cinema which played her “Dona Flora and Her Two Husbands” to fifty thousand people almost fifty years ago.

Marquees are time capsules, we are told, as many stills, like one featuring the director in his youth, are dated based on the movies emblazoned upon them.  After a tribute to projectionist Alexandre Moura, a close friend who died in 2002, and some lost history about a building full of Hollywood distributors, Filho showcases the Cinema Sao Luiz, a palace made up like a tent from the time of the Crusades, its stained glass fleur de lis on either side of the screen hinting at a place of worship.  This cinema, located at the end of the Boa Vista Bridge, is still in operation today

Filho ends his film on a fantastical note, an Uber driver confiding in his super power of disappearance, fading in and out of the scene as the car continues to be steered past current day Recife, a depressing parade of brightly lit, characterless strip mall stores.  While “Pictures of Ghosts” left me feeling sad for all that has been lost in cities the world over, Filho’s historical archive is a treasure, a brilliantly structured personal reflection on people and places past.

Robin's Review: A-

Grasshopper Films released “Pictures of Ghosts” in NY on 1/26/24.  Click here for additional play dates.