Bacurau writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s personal and in-depth Pictures of Ghosts explores the history of his home town of Recife, while examining the deep cultural impact of Brazilian movie palaces. Using archival footage and home movies to reflect on his childhood, the first of three acts is dedicated to the filmmaker’s childhood apartment. The very place Mendonça Filho grew up making movies with his friends and family and saw his dreams blossom into reality, his home was very much his own personal cinematic landscape. We witness his everyday observations seep their way into his early films. The termite outbreak from Aquarius stems from real experience as does the barking dog Nico. It’s an interesting peek behind the curtain of an artist and how their upbringing influences their art.
From here, Mendonça Filho transitions to the most fascinating and poignant segment of the film, focusing on the luscious movie palaces that helped support the local downtown area, which used to house countless moviegoers, but now appears to be little more than a ghost town. Personal anecdotes from Mendonça Filho’s time working at the Art Palácio are rendered with clear love amidst melancholic memories. He compares working the last week of the building’s operations to “being on a ship as it’s being prepped to be sunk”. Mr. Alexandre, the longtime projectionist who had taken Mendonça Filho under his wing, is filled with amusing stories of his time in the booth. He describes the pain of having to run The Godfather for four straight months, even refusing to come in to work on its last day as he couldn’t take hearing that theme song once more. Even describing his time with censorship under the dictatorship. Having personally known quite a few guys like Mr. Alexandre, any moment spent in that sweltering projection booth listening to his stories is pure bliss.
Mendonça Filho, whose films all have an astounding sense of place — you can distinctly feel the baking sun of the desert in Bacurau — utilizes the tactile approach of his filmography to recreate the sense of time and place with these now-defunct movie houses. The Veneza and Cinema São Luiz are also showcased as these beautiful temples that even had similar architecture to churches. There’s a longing and tenderness to the filmmaker’s link to people and buildings that are no longer there, what he classifies as ghosts. The last third dedicates much of its time to the effects the decay of these classic buildings have on the community, especially during hardships where folks could flock to their local movie palace and escape. Mendonça Filho’s narration can be a bit dry, but nevertheless filled with clear love and passion for the film’s many topics. The filmmaker even breaks from his established narrative formula for a very clever ending that leaves its purpose up to the interpretation of the viewer.
Pictures of Ghosts is an engaging and fascinating study of Brazilian cinefile culture and the lasting effects of cinema. Anyone with a love of film preservation and insight into classic movie houses should definitely find this to be insightful and highlights the importance of cinemas now, and the importance of film preservation.
Pictures of Ghosts is in select theaters now and will be expanding throughout February.