Review by Joseph Fayed
One can not reflect on the cultural landscape of society shifting over time without discussing the personal impact it has had on them. In the documentary Pictures of Ghosts, filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho tells the story of past and present-day Recife, Brazil. But in what is meant to be a love letter to his hometown, there is rich history but not much to expand on.
Throughout his life, Kleber Mendonca Filho has always had an innate passion for film, which he began growing up in a small neighborhood in Recife. Recife has always been at the heart of Filho's filmography through home video spanning decades; the director shares why that is the case.
Recife is treated as the main focus of this documentary. However, its evolution does not feel like it is being explained in a practical manner. Recife's rich history feels stuck in the past, meaning there is little context or insight to describe the neighborhood outside of explaining its current structures. Someone unfamiliar with this landscape won't learn much about the present and how Recife has evolved, contributing any major change to essentially nothing.
The shining moments are the characters we are introduced to in the past and near present. With how blunt the film can feel with how it expresses its message, archive footage of people like the cinema projectionist on the job does make this film relatable to an extent. Each one's experiences with Filho are recounted before it mentions how they, too, feel like they have been lost to time.
The cinematography is simple and makes some wise choices. Shots of the apartment the director lived in for many years feel intimate and not like a walk-through tour. Anything taking place outside relies on wide shots usually from above street view. A particular sequence is a long shot that captures Recife's Carnival at night. It lasts about two minutes and is the sole indicator of something that has been carried over from the past. The shot does feel out of place compared to the rest of the film but it helps link together the past and the present more than the rest of the narrative does.
Ultimately, Pictures of Ghosts are old memories with nothing new to say. Any architecture that is no more becomes an afterthought narratively speaking. One must wonder why Filho, who seems so appreciative of the past, didn't use all of the footage he had shot decades ago and just structured his film to reflect on that time period instead of an attempt to flip back and forth. Filho's own narration sounds like it's obligatory when it doesn't revolve around himself or his family/friends either. Recife is at the heart of many of his films, so it is upsetting that such an integral part of the story doesn't have the anthropological vision it needs.
Pictures of Ghosts is now playing in theaters.