PICTURES OF GHOSTS – Review by Jennifer Green

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A love letter to the Brazilian city of Recife as well as to cinemas and urban centers of a bygone era, Pictures of Ghosts is an intelligent documentary with relatively limited audience appeal. Brazil’s sensible nominee to the International Feature Film Oscar, it premiered in Special Screenings at Cannes and offers an evocative exploration of the nation’s own cinema history and golden age of movie theaters. Though some of its themes could be applied to cities all over the world, this documentary is likely to hold the most interest for local and cinephile audiences.

Director Kleber Mendonça Filho calls the film his own “personal album,” and it is indeed filled with footage and still images from his own life and previous movies. He also weaves in a significant amount of archive footage, moving back and forth between time periods, and between fiction and reality. This seems to symbolize one of the themes of the documentary, how life and cinema interact and inform each other, themes he touches on repeatedly in his gentle voiceover narration, creating his own oral history.

The film is split into three parts. The first is the most personal, dedicated to the apartment where he has lived for decades, with his mom and later his wife and children. This section is filled with images from his own past and the story of his mother, who died too young at age 54. Mendonça Filho also filmed several of his own films in the apartment and neighborhood, and scenes from these are played in parallel to scenes of his actual life there, making the apartment almost like a recurring character in his body of work.

The second section of the film is about the cinemas of downtown Recife. Images contrast an abandoned downtown today with its glory years, when the money flowed, theaters were packed and all the major US studios had office space in the same building. This middle part of the film contains some of the most emotional moments, including footage from the director’s own graduation project from journalism school 30 years ago about the closures of Recife’s “older movie palaces” in the 1980s and 1990s.

The final section of the film is about the one remaining movie palace in Recife, the São Luiz. Unlike other cinemas, which have been converted into churches (and Evangelical ones at that, which Mendonça Filho suggests says a lot about Catholicism’s waning power in Brazil), the São Luiz is still standing and still full of people – some 50 million over the last 70 years, apparently. The São Luiz is called “a temple” and represents the cinema itself “as a church.”

This is an engaging and heartfelt ode to cinema, to family, to passing time, to changing urban landscapes, to the characters that give a place its life in each singular era. As the man who served as the longtime projectionist in one of the now-closed cinemas says in archive footage, when he realizes he’ll be the last person out of the building on the day his beloved workplace closes: “I’ll close up with a key of tears.”

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.