The Kleber Mendonça Filho-helmed doc mourns and celebrates an era of cinema that seems to be crumbling beneath our feet.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Filmmakers and general film enthusiasts worldwide share a deep distress over the slow erosion of theatrical projection and film preservation. Most recently, Martin Scorsese spoke extensively about the state of cinema in a high-profile interview, sparking a round of online arguments. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur of the Film Heritage Foundation has been working to preserve much of India’s old film reels, previously left rotting away in government closets for decades. Restored film prints of previously thought to be lost or incomplete films like Mohammed Reza Aslani’s Chess Game of the Wind and Abel Gance’s La Roue (which plays this year at NYFF) have proven that, with dedicated effort, people can salvage film history.
Entering into the discussion is Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Pictures of Ghosts. As the title suggests, it acts as a sort of requiem. The movie documents the death of theaters in Filho’s Brazilian hometown, Recife, and the loss of culture that followed it.
Pictures of Ghosts aims to be a comprehensive portrait of how cinema and the theatrical experience touch lives. Mendonça begins the film with his childhood and home life. From that foundation, he extrapolates how pieces of culture infiltrated his home, quietly building his love of cinema. Over time, he began going to theaters like the Trianon, Moderno, and Art Palacio. In these beautiful homes of entertainment, his love blossomed.
A greater worldwide film culture followed. It ingratiated itself into his home, promoting a sense of community built on belonging and relating to one another.
Mendonça has always had a pulpy and darkly humorous sense of style. That isn’t lost or forgone in this documentary. He relays a few comedic stories, even cracking sarcastic remarks about Western capital replacing cultural history. His own movies weave into the story. For instance, Pictures of Ghosts relates a true story of termites eating the walls of Mendonça’s childhood apartment building. This tale became a central plot point of Aquarius.
[The “ghosts” are] not only a lamentation of the slow erosion of the theater but a confirmation of the sense of the supernatural wonder that film still holds for Mendonça.
Unlike his narrative films, though, there is no cathartic comeuppance in the doc. There’s no thundering moment where the central characters make their presence known and their power undeniable. The best Mendonça can offer is encouraging a wait-and-see approach for the resurgence of film culture.
The ‘ghosts’ in Pictures of Ghosts mean many things. They’re not only a lamentation of the slow erosion of the theater but a confirmation of the sense of the supernatural wonder that film still holds for Mendonça. He cheekily ties a ghost mystery into his documentary, claiming he once filmed a specter but lacks a way to prove it. It becomes a winking narrative thread in the otherwise non-fiction portrayal of Mendonça’s childhood. Equally an expression of grief and celebration, Mendonça’s Pictures of Ghosts digs through the past for clues to cinema’s future. Maybe the ghosts know the answer.