A still from ‘Pictures of Ghosts’

‘Pictures of Ghosts’: Kleber Mendonça Filho‘s Ode To Cinema

By 01 December, 2023

Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas), Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow up to his neo-exploitation acid-western Bacarau (2019), is a documentary that is an extremely personal ode to the cinemas of the past as well as changing urban spaces. Mendonça is a filmmaker renowned for accurately portraying Brazilian slices of life, particularly negotiating the class differences that embody the everyday existence of all Brazilians. His laconic and sympathetic narration relates our changing landscape, whether it is our homes or the cities we inhabit. The ghosts in the title could refer to a mysterious blur in a photo, the neighbour’s lonely barking dog, or the ghosts of the past in once packed but now abandoned cinemas in the old city centre.

We start with the apartment that Mendonça grew up in and a never ending renovation that so many of us experience, we then move out onto his street and finally into the city centre and the fate of the old cinemas These once elegant buildings which were previously spaces to discover revelations and screen stars, are now evangelical churches and thus spaces of a different kind of worship. There are also surprises in the unlikely fascist past of such a mixed race city like Recife, not only in projectionists dealing with the censors of the dictatorship, but also how Recife was considered one of the two key cities in Brazil (the other being São Paulo) suitable for spreading Nazi propaganda during the regime of Getulio Vargas (cue bizarre black and white photos of zeppelins flying over favelas and colonial style houses). 

A theme that Mendonça returns to in his work is the urbanisation in his hometown of Recife. Neighbouring Sounds (2012) examined the effect of a private security group on different levels of society, and Aquarius (2016) is centred around the gentrification of Recife and the class of Brazilian that benefits from this and what the city loses in the name of modernisation and development. 

I saw this film in a tiny independent “street” cinema near the city centre of Ribeirão Preto, in the interior of Brazil. The Casa Belas Artes is a relatively new project designed to give space to films like this, releases that don’t fit in the multiplexes. All over Brazil we can see a similar situation in medium to large cities: the abandonment of the city centre, once the hub of the city with commerce and culture coming together. The population has migrated to gated communities in the suburbs, spreading out of the populace and thinning out the vibrant cultural spaces as privatisation takes over public spaces. Cinemas are now situated in soulless shopping malls where consumption takes precedence and cinema chains that prioritise popcorn sales over quality cinema dominate the landscape. 

Mendonça is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Brazil at the moment, Pictures of Ghosts feels like a break between projects and a minor work. However, he makes us bear witness to societal changes where cinema, which was once so vital and living, is pushed to the side, and a society once so entranced by the moving image has turned to consumerism. He finishes with the example of the Cinema São Luiz which shows that there are alternatives, though this could be an anomaly. Mendonça looking out from his Uber ride in the parting shot and seeing an endless line of pharmacies in the streets is at once exasperating and at the same time hilarious in its absurdity. A hypochondriac society trying to cure its malaise, maybe.

Pictures of Ghosts will have its London premiere on Friday 1st December at 8.40 pm at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and will include a Q&A with the director. It will be followed by a week-long run in the ICA Cinema.

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