New York 2023 Review: PICTURES OF GHOSTS, Ephemeral Nature of Our Lives

Brazilian director Mendonça Filho serves as our expert guide to his beloved city of Recife, combining his own experience and his love of cinema.

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
New York 2023 Review: PICTURES OF GHOSTS, Ephemeral Nature of Our Lives

Kleber Mendonça Filho is known for his films Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius and Bacurau, which all became arthouse darlings on the international festival circuit and in turn, made his hometown of Recife, a city in northeastern Brazil, a center for a surging new Brazilian cinema.

Living and working in his beloved city for the last 40 years, it is only natural that his new film, Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos fantasmas), is a love letter to Recife. But the film is not merely a melancholic look back on the past. Instead, he is using his personal story, through the geography of the neighborhood and the historiography of cinema, to illustrate the rapidly changing nation. It's a charmer.

Mendonça Filho, who has seen the city morph into skyscrapers and shopping malls, fondly remembers his upbringing. His single mom Jocelice, a local historian, brought up him and his siblings in a two-story apartment building -- which has been a location for several of his films -- all the way back when he was making action/horror films with other cinephile friends using a VHS camera, right up to his more recent films. Part one of the film is dedicated to this house and neighboring buildings.

Physical buildings can be torn down and repurposed, but people and animals who inhabit the area linger in one way or another. The filmmaker, well-versed in cinema history and studies, puts an importance on oral history and ephemerals when drawing a complete picture of the place.

There is a funny bit on a neighborhood dog, whose day and night barking drove everyone crazy. The barking, so distinctive and recognizable, ended up in many of the filmmaker's films unintentionally. Decades later, he was startled by the barking, only to find out someone was watching one of his films in the living room. Pictures of Ghosts is filled with stories like that.

There are no shortage of local historical artifacts and newsreel footage, including Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh's visit to the city in 1961. Chic boutique and luxury shops dotted the street near the riverside.

Part two is dedicated to the cinemas and downtown Recife. Back in its heyday, as an important commercial hub of northeastern Brazil, the downtown area was booming with foreign investments and money poured in. And it hosted many opulent cinema houses, where Mendonça Filho spent most of his teenage days.

Now the money is gone, downtown Recife is a hull of its glorious past, with faded buildings and most of its gilded cinema palaces either abandoned or turned into shopping malls. In Pictures of Ghosts, the person in charge of changing the marquee of the cinemas become timekeepers, as the film titles appear in the background of historical photos in the papers, some of their letters obscured by trees, traffic and even marching soldiers during military incursions, presenting unintended Godardian wordplay. We see the lobby cards, movie posters and other movie paraphernalia being sold in an outdoor market outside those closed movie houses.

Mendonça Filho also has video footage of a projectionist of one of the great cinemas he frequented, asking earnest questions about his career and the prospect of the cinema house closing its doors, as well as a shot of one of the projectors kept in a locked room, in what is now a shopping mall, for posterity's sake.

Part three is 'Churches and Holy Ghosts.' The filmmaker connects an early Anglican church becoming a cinema house, then turning into an Evangelical church. His criticism of the rise of Evangelicals in the country, including the extreme right-wing Bolsonaro regime, is there; as he bluntly puts it, "Evangelicals bought cinema."

The movie ends with a whimsical taxi ride, throwing shade on Hollywood's superhero movies. The 80s Michael Mann vibe with night lights reflecting on the car, as it rides the bridge at night with smooth jazz playing, reminds the audience that the Brazilian director undoubtedly grew up loving 80s Hollywood cinema.

Pictures of Ghosts is a loving, intimate documentary on ephemeral nature of our lives. Our loved ones grow old and die, buildings get torn down, video footage disintegrates, but there is evidence of those lives lived and experienced all over, if you know where to look.

Combining his own experience and his love of cinema, Mendonça Filho serves as our expert guide to his beloved city of Recife. It is definitely my choice for the documentary of the year.

The film enjoys its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. Visit the official festival site for more information

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at

Pictures of Ghosts

  • Kleber Mendonça Filho
  • Kleber Mendonça Filho
  • Kleber Mendonça Filho
  • Alexandre Moura
  • Rubens Santos
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BrazilKleber Mendonça FilhoNew York Film FestivalPictures of GhostsAlexandre MouraRubens SantosDocumentary

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