If the death of cinema is imminent, at least Kleber Mendonça Filho can play it out with some vintage Tropicália. It’s becoming a nice leitmotif of the Brazilian director’s career, whose ultraviolent Bacurau curtain-raised with Gal Costa’s “Não Identificado,” and latest effort Pictures of Ghosts, which premiered as a Special Screening at Cannes, eases in with Tom Zé’s deceptively jaunty “Happy End.” This is a first-person, arguably selfish movie––in that associated genre, the docu-essay––where Mendonça Filho seems to be waving a teary-eyed goodbye to valuable associations and possessions, perhaps only those of individual sentimental resonance. Yet it’s “selfish” in a productive manner, almost as a function of self-care, like a sunny afternoon lounging on the settee revisiting one’s favorite LPs.
The title Pictures of Ghosts has been oddly overlapping in my mind with British theorist Mark Fisher’s posthumous hit essay collection Ghosts of My Life. It’s a hauntological film accreting details, reminiscences, and exegesis from his work (including three fine features, and numerous narrative and experimental shorts), and then more rewardingly, in the succeeding two acts, an archeology of Recife’s brick-and-mortar cinema culture, acting as a welcome nexus point for so many things beyond the sometimes-insular world of movies––gentrification, urbanism, class, political struggle.
Lest that sound a bit academic, Mendonça Filho also owns and foregrounds Pictures‘ personal nature by narrating in soft-spoken Portuguese. (Although we can be reminded: personal is not the same as confessional. He says so much about himself while eschewing any detail of his private life.) In its first and least-compelling section he achieves a nice, deflating laugh remarking on his fluctuating appreciation for cats and dogs: “they’re fucking annoying,” he says––the context being the Ballardian sense of living on top of one another in the hulking high-rises of his home city of Recife and the “neighbouring sounds” leaking from their inner walls, as his breakthrough feature references. It’s a potted visual cine-autobiography, giving brief details of his parents and carefully visually analyzing the likes of Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius, though his comments sometimes make overly transparent what is implicit in those mysterious works themselves.
Then, evoking what in social science is called “rephotography,” Mendonça Filho provides a unique angle for documenting the downtown Recife movie palaces that expanded his mind, clearly a source of liberation from the claustrophobic environs of domestic space. Thank goodness he is clearly an innate filmer, and thank goodness for the scratchy tactility of old, dead technologies: beautifully restored photos, contemporary reportage, and his own home-video era camerawork alternate these various spots, among them the Art Palácio and the Trianon. He shows real chops as an orthodox documentary filmmaker, quizzing the Afro-Brazilian projectionist of one cinema on lining up the reels for The Godfather on its initial theatrical run, and his admission of gradually tiring of the thing. Elsewhere, we learn of Brazil’s political association with Nazi Germany in the early days of its existence, with certain cinemas constructed and branded with the studio UFA, with plans to show Third Reich propaganda.
Handheld tracking shots of the former cinema sites, in the present, foreground the oneiric dimension that all of Pictures inhabits beautifully. Mendonça Filho has made something with the social curiosity and playfulness of Varda and the sense-memory of Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, with the acknowledgement that when a cinema closes it’s like putting a heaving, physical body hosting a soul (and countless memories) to a deep, final sleep.
The director concludes with a devised metafictional skit that would sound corny on paper and as explained, but is executed with dry wit. And he bookends his most succinct feature with another expertly chosen needle drop that leaves you smiling, and maybe more optimistic than the tenor of its melancholy auteur.
Pictures of Ghosts premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.