Pictures of Ghosts is a nostalgic, poignant reflection of a loss of community, taking nothing for granted in its presentation.
Director Kleber Mendonça Filho loves movies. He loves making movies, watching movies, and reviewing movies. His hometown of Recife, Brazil is where he discovered that love. Recife was once crawling with life and bearing a vibrant entertainment district, but many of its theaters are sadly closing down. Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas) seeks to tell this history, by showing what the theaters were and what they became after demolition. It is poignant, emotional, and reflects Mendonca Filho’s love of film in each scene. Though marketed as a documentary, the movie offers a narrative and deeper themes as compelling as any fiction piece. More than anything, it reminds us to reflect on the experience of seeing these movies in these places.
The first part of the movie is about Mendonça Filho’s life and tastes for filmmaking. Pictures of Ghosts eases viewers in by showing his passion and inspirations from the people and history of Recife. Then, in the second part, it goes for the gut punch with some surprises. He reflects on the theaters of the area, how each one had character and class, and how most of the theaters have been torn down. Some are drugstores, some are churches, but all of them in some way have lost the spark that made them great. In the final act, Mendonça Filho thinks about film in terms of the present, and is thankful the buildings are still used in some capacity, but laments how the moviegoing aspect is becoming lost.
Mendonça Filho’s favorite place was Cinema São Luiz. Once the most celebrated theater in Recife, it shows films no more. The Sao Luiz has been closed for renovation since March 2020. Pictures of Ghosts continues to hold out hope of being the first movie to premiere there, but no date has been set. Mendonca Filho’s love of history is what is keeping the place alive, and he speaks about the place with the same reverence as Notre Dame Cathedral in how it added to the films it played by being the best place to see it. The themes and presentation call to mind other movies of this genre like Goodbye, Dragon Inn or Cinema Paradiso, which are about characters in the cinema and focus on the setting as part of the experience.
Every cinema in Recife has a story. The Art Palacio was built by the Nazis to spread propaganda, but thankfully never quite took off. The Moderno was converted into part of a shopping mall. Another was simply abandoned and now lies in a dilapidated state. Mendonça Filho’s explorations of these buildings is presented like a visual essay, cataloging the state of Brazilian cinema through its decay and poor upkeep. Footage of movies showing location shots of these cinemas is all that remains of some of them, providing the perfect time capsule for a happier time in Recife. These fiction films are a better document of the time than most documentaries.
Pictures of Ghosts is an intimate look at the director’s hometown, but also a reflection of the importance of historical preservation. When we lose a historic place, we lose a part of ourselves. The Sao Luiz is an important part of Mendonca Filho’s life, and not one he wants to see go away. In many ways, this film raises awareness for the theater itself, and hails moviegoing as a holy experience. In telling his story, we feel for him and the town of Recife, and the ending will leave you in tears if you are as passionate about movies as he is.
Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas) premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2023 and will be released in US theaters early 2024.