Places in the Heart
By Gavin Smith

Pictures of Ghosts
Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, Grasshopper Film

Just about every cinephile and cineaste remembers their first time—that Big Bang epiphany that revealed an entire cinematic universe, stretching back over a century or more and, like the cosmos, continuing to expand. The light from distant stars takes centuries to reach us, and so when we look at them, we’re literally seeing an image from the distant past—and so it is when we watch a film made in 1923 or 2023. For generations, those epiphanies only occurred in a specific location: a movie theater (or maybe a drive-in). Thereafter, technology bought them to where you lived: on television sets via broadcast or cable channel, or carried home from video stores and public libraries, or delivered by mail in red envelopes. In the 21st century those epiphanies surely still happen every day to people via the internet and for the newest generation of movie lovers, for whom movie theaters seem so last century, on streaming services.

As pundits regularly foretell the demise of the big-screen, communal theatrical exhibition of films, Kleber Mendonça Filho isn’t about to play King Canute or rail against inevitable change with his new essay film, Pictures of Ghosts, which he describes as “what it means to be a cinephile.” Happily, while adopting the role of an “amateur archivist,” Mendonça Filho doesn’t settle for a nostalgic reverie of his personal moviegoing golden age, between the ages of 13 and 25. Pictures of Ghosts is as much a meditation on a home, a city, and a stretch of modern history—and how, over time, all three have evolved—as it is a memory-filled tour of a vanished world of movie theaters and other traces of film culture, tinged with a sense of loss.

Structured in three parts, edited over seven years, and narrated throughout by Mendonça Filho, Pictures of Ghosts begins with a methodical description of the apartment in which he grew up, came of age as a cinephile and was eventually transformed into a fully-fledged filmmaker. This section, “The Setúbal Apartment,” concludes with him producing a black-and-white photo taken in 1991 of a bona fide apparition in the living room, handily supplying the film with its title. Mendonça Filho goes on to pay loving tribute to his mother, who encouraged his filmmaking aspirations, and takes us on a room-by-room guided tour of the family’s apartment, freely intercutting between vintage lo-res video formats, photos, and present-day footage, establishing the film’s dense, heterogeneous collage aesthetic. Elaborating on this portrait of home Mendonça Filho incorporates shots of actor Maeve Jinkins in the apartment, drawn from his first feature, Neighboring Sounds (2012), which was partially shot there, and also rolls back time to include footage of gunplay and homemade gore FX from his juvenilia as a budding teenage filmmaker. Finally, as if to illustrate his observation that “It’s when you bring together the mundane and some cinema[tic] look—then it feels like a movie,” minatory music rises on the soundtrack during a present-day night-time dinner, which becomes the occasion for an ominous iPhone-shot scene as Jinkins investigates mysterious spooky sounds outside the apartment’s window.

From the apartment, plainly his cinematic ground zero, Mendonça Filho takes to the streets, enlarging the film’s scope from the immediate neighborhood (alternating present-day images with shots from Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius) to, as the second section title suggests, “The Cinemas of Downtown Recife.” He recounts the decline of this district, once a thriving civic and commercial center, which was slowly abandoned in the 1970s because, as he puts it with a hint of cynicism, “the money has gone elsewhere.” And Mendonça Filho notably takes care to thread his cinephile pilgrim’s walk down memory lane through the space/time of the city it traverses. Early in part two, he unfolds a hand-drawn “sentimental map” of downtown, with streets and cinemas as landmarks. Later he includes 30-year-old video footage of a film memorabilia street vendor but emphasizes that he became a local hero in 1985 after helping avert an oil tanker disaster. A visit to a newspaper archive to view print advertisements (“The 1977 King Kong Fever… and Sonia at the Boa Vista in Dona Flor, third week”) also takes in a crime news item (“Christmas Bonus: Five Dead”) and a socialites’ photo spread. It would be pushing it to call Pictures of Ghosts a city symphony—it’s too unassuming and idiosyncratically personal for that. But it always takes time to linger on the city’s street-level textures, for instance the beautiful mosaic patterning on the sidewalk along the length of the now-disused Moderna cinema.

If the film transcends the subject that gave impetus to Pictures of Ghosts—the disparate fates of cherished movie theaters that closed their doors in the 1990s—it nevertheless devotes the requisite screen time to the old haunts in which Mendonça Filho experienced formative viewings of the likes of Die Hard and To Live and Die in L.A., but also films like Salò. He pays particular attention to the Art Palácio, introduced with a shot of himself sweeping up on the week it closed in 1992. As a student, he had already made two VHS-shot documentaries about the theater’s final years that are cannibalized in the new film. After offsetting glimpses of its run-down state and grimy mechanical inner workings with photos of the cinema in its 1940s heyday, we are led from the box office to the inner sanctum of the projection booth, presided over by projectionist Alexandre Moura. This seasoned technician is a fount of anecdotes: about the former use of live commentators to interpret art films for the audience, and an abortive pre-WWII Nazi plan to use the then UFA-owned theater to disseminate propaganda (cut to photos of zeppelins over Recife), at a time when Brazilian President Getúlia Vargas was a Third Reich sympathizer. This leaves Mendonça Filho pondering a movie scenario involving the intrigue and plotting of American and Nazi spies and pro- and anti-neutrality Brazilians—a future project perhaps?

There’s much more ground covered in this film, making for a delightful and slightly melancholic guided tour of touchstone sites. A visit to the former “U.S. consulate of sorts,” a five-floor erstwhile outpost for all the Hollywood distributors—fleeting superimpositions of their logos float towards us—affords true film fetishists (you know who you are) a final glimpse of its print distribution center, shelves stacked with film cans, courtesy of a clip from a 2006 short, Eisenstein. The fond handling of the distributors’ weekly detritus of posters, trailers, stills, lobby cards, press books, salvaged in Mendonça Filho’s dumpster-diving youth. And a sequence celebrating the poetry of pre-digital movie signage—“Marquees read like secret messages to people…The city was marked all over by fantasy words”—that has a sting in its tail. They can also serve as historical markers, as demonstrated by a photo in which a marquee for John Boorman’s Point Blank forms the backdrop for a group of soldiers, dating from late 1968, when a decree was passed establishing full military control of Brazil.

Almost exactly a year later, in early 1970, the luxurious Veneza Cinema held its opening gala for a screening (Airport in 70mm), with a military band and the Governor of Pernambuco state, of which Recife is the capital, in attendance. The archival footage of this gala triggers unforeseen pangs in Mendonça Filho. While a phone rings unanswered in that 1970 footage of the Veneza, he remarks “It’s kind of sad to become attached to a product. The problem lies in the fact that you spent years of your life going to this cinema. So, the relationship gets emotional and confusing.” As he voices this, we see that it’s him in 2023 on the other end of the phone, telephoning a theater that will never reciprocate his feelings. Its current condition? Completely gutted, ready to be turned into a shopping mall. “This thing took root in the Veneza like an alien organism and the cinema became its host… I’ve never seen a mutation as strange as this one.”

“Churches and Holy Ghosts,” part three of Pictures of Ghosts could be said to be more a matter of transfiguration than transformation. Here, only the São Luiz theater seems to continue to thrive, packing them in. Some of its habitués view it as the ultimate example of cinema as church or temple, with décor and stained glass to match (and ironically built on the former site of an Anglican Church in 1952). Mendonça Filho films a rapt audience watching the beginning of Dario Argento’s Suspiria—and then cuts to an evangelical service taking place inside a former movie theater, one of two Recife cinemas that were turned into churches in a matter of weeks in the late 1980s. Effectively inverting the cinema-as-church metaphor, they anticipate a sea change in organized religion in Brazil, with Catholicism increasingly losing ground to evangelism. As an outspoken critic of the right-wing government that recently lost power, Mendonça Filho surely finds this development troubling, but Pictures of Ghosts is no polemic.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Pictures of Ghosts has one more element in its collage: a kind of film history corrective or fan’s notes perhaps. Throughout the second and third sections Mendonça Filho name-checks unsung or internationally unrecognized Brazilian filmmakers, sometimes including excerpts from their films. He starts with a clip from local Recife filmmaker Katia Mesel’s 1997 short Recife de Dentro Pra Fora; among the other dozen or so citations are Marcelia Cartaxo and Suzana Amaral, respectively star and director of Hour of the Star, and represented here by a theater marquee; actor-playwright Antonio Cadengue as an anarchic vampire in Jomard Muniz de Britto’s 1981 short Noturno Em Ré-cife Maior; prolific director Claudio Assis and actor Matheus Nachtergaele, represented by a clip from their 2006 collaboration Amarello Manga; and Fernando Spencer, surely a sub-rosa Recife filmmaker if ever there was one, who began making shorts at age 47 and completed nine before his death in 2014. The acknowledgment of these more or less exalted totemic Brazilian cinema touchstones represents a polemical critical agenda. In short, a film that needs footnotes!

P.S.: Mendonça Filho doesn’t come out and identify his cinematic Big Bang here—that’s not the point of the film, even if cinephilia is its arena. But he was born in 1968, which makes him 14 when he could have first seen Mad Max 2 (U.S. title: The Road Warrior), which places third on his Sight & Sound All-Time 10 Best list published in 2022 . . .