ghost portraits

Image: Disclosure


Commentary on the film by Kleber Mendonça Filho, showing in cinemas

“A cinema like this helps build character.” (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

ghost portraits is a film divided into three parts by the director: (i) the Setúbal apartment; (ii) cinemas in the center of Recife; (iii) churches and holy spirits. In the first, the director and screenwriter shows the house where he spent much of his childhood and adult life, first with his younger brother and mother (after his father separated), and after he was married, with his own family.

In the second, the story is told using archive images and current footage about the locations of the old cinemas in the center of Recife, most of which have ceased to exist. Some of these theaters I remember the name of: Cinema São Luiz, cinema Veneza, cinema Art Palácio. The third part refers both to the abandonment and demolition of some of the buildings, and to the transformation of some of the old rooms into churches and shops. Personally, I think there would be room to consider a fourth part: the final section with the scenes in the uber.

The first part constitutes the narrator or the perspective (or even explains something about the narrator's class position) from which the other parts will be told. In the second, the subject of cinema seems to bring something of a metanarrative that, by telling the story of what was done, does what can still be done in terms of film, documentation, history and memory. In the third part, the process of transformation stands out as the focus, as if the fantasy of cinema were updated in a religious trance, the temple of imagination transubstantiated into the temple of faith. From artistic, social and intellectual to doctrinal, religious and commercial projects. In the fourth, we return to expressly fictional cinema and, therefore, the best cinema, as in a certain passage the narrator recognizes: “fiction films are the best documentaries.”

The title of the film suggests a negative balance, because even though they are portraits, they are of ghosts, they are images of the dead. It will not be absurd to remember Machado’s famous title “posthumous memories”, of a deceased in the metaphorical sense, of one who lived through the vivid time of street cinemas and who now, in part, only exists in memory, whose process of annihilation was the same as the rush and whims of the variant foci of real estate speculation ( as the narrator says: “The spaces of power were very well planned”) and of capital’s volubility in the productive reconfiguration of profit horizons.

City, art and people are consumed and converted only into the provisional frame that suffers the shocks of the force of money, as the other said. In this sense, the title of the film also recalls the name of Paulo Prado’s book: Portrait of Brazil: essay on Brazilian sadness.

References also appear in the film to Joaquim Nabuco and André Rebouças, both studied by the historian mother attentive to the theme of slavery and the abolitionist movement. Therefore, as an allusion to the mother's clarity regarding Brazil's political, economic and social past in the world order and, perhaps, about the type of radicalism she cultivated as a middle-class intellectual, in a country like Brazil.

The images of political activism in the 1989 election and the mention of other political involvements seem to confirm this hypothesis. When saying that his mother worked as a researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, the narrator immediately says that “it is not about methodology (the memory), but about love”. The reference, however, still plays an important part in the constitution of the narrative and political positioning it also assumes.

The documentary filmmaker son inherits, in his own way, the concern with history and the political position that his mother claimed. It comes to the fore in artistic terms to reinvent and assume the convenient perspective to tell the story of the same intertwinings of class (political), professional (economic) and family (social) in the transformations of the house, the surroundings and, finally, of architectural reconfiguration until the physical suppression of street cinemas in Recife. The narrator would represent, in this reading, the point of view of the intellectual who strives to reconstitute the historical materiality of the roundabout march of social reproduction, within the limits of the practices of the modest middle-class radicalism he assumed. Always remembering that, unless I'm mistaken, there is currently no other.

The title also brings the ambiguity of meanings, since the portraits would either be ghosts, and, therefore, they would carry an old metaphorical sense of not being real, but just abstract images, and would concern the artistic resource of the portrait, more than the figures depicted. Or, in another way, the focus would be precisely on the image of effigies of people who have already died, which would mean real portraits whose models are ghosts.

Throughout the film, I think, both meanings coexist, either because they refer to cinema's own illusionism, or because through the narration, images and metaphorical suggestions, extinct eras, resources and conditions are presented, or, rather, that exist only in imagination and memory, are now ghostly.

The director's speech during the film is balanced (he speaks little and well), memorialistic, humorous and, in a few passages, self-referential, since, in the latter case, with the images as a background, the voice-over sometimes refers himself to the words themselves, as in the passage in which he says “I love Recife” twice and says that he found it excessive, he removed the line, but included it again in the final version, because, as he states “we should always say how much loves someone.”

The narration is always in the first person and, if I paid close attention the first time I saw the film, it does not make moral judgments about the house, the city, the movie theaters, their end, and even less about the films. However, due to the contrast of the images, we get the feeling that much has been lost over time.

What emerges from the set is a personal and at the same time (or perhaps because of this) general portrait of the city of Recife. The detail captured and told is so meticulous that it refers to the generality, the detail of the increase in bars and fences in the houses expresses the broader movement of social degradation.

The story of the house is also the story of the family and the surroundings, which is also the story of the film that is made about the house and the family and the neighborhood until the moment that the movie theaters on the streets of the city center show to the focus of the film. By interspersing footage from the past and present, viewers get an idea of ​​the transformation of places over time, almost always under the effect of surprise and shock at the verticalization and urban architectural suffocation.

In the case of the house, the changes were positive, with expansion and construction; in the case of cinemas, they were negative, with reduction and destruction. It would be possible to say that in the memory that the film establishes the house represents the city and vice versa, but also that the cinema represents home and vice versa and even though the house, the city, the rooms and the films are carriers, respectively, of memory, history, time and document. And the synthesis is made by cinematographic gesture.

The film is constituted by the history of changes, reconstitutions and destructions, that is, it is made by what is undone, and what it remakes is just a type of aesthetic use, because of another nature, even if as art it retains something of the ancient sense of the idea of ​​production.

It helps to appreciate the peculiarities of each style of filmmaking, although at the risk of injustice, comparing them with other Brazilian filmmakers who made documentary films. For example, in relation to Eduardo Coutinho (I think, for example, of Master Building), I think that ghost portraits denotes a particular astuteness in the sense that the director-screenwriter assumes leadership from the definition of the project, the sequences and even the images, as if the editing itself was, in part, anticipated.

In the case of Kleber Mendonça Filho, the viewer is left with the impression that it was the realization of something that is intertwined with his own life story. Coutinho discovered the film, in general and through testimonials, sometimes only at the end, during the editing process. In relation to João Moreira Salles (from Santiago), I distinguish a more cerebral direction and planning, a project in which personal and professional life are strictly distinct, even, for example, in the case of the film Santiago. Much more than this kind of free biographical-sentimental association from the director of Retratos phantasmas. The three tell, with different styles and perspectives, illuminating different focuses, the same story backed by Brazilian material.

In the final scenes, in the uber, the documentary filmmaker starts a conversation with the driver. We quickly identified the change in camera positioning and the scenic construction resources, with close-ups and varied shots and angles, apparently starting to tell another story. The passenger-director-actor proposes an itinerary that is more of a tour of the center of Recife, and the driver accepts. On the way, when saying that he works in cinema, the filmmaker hears from the driver: “cinema is mass”.

The conversation continues until the driver says he has a superpower, that of becoming invisible, which he proves later, without stopping driving the car. The apprehensive passenger puts on his seat belt and, initially intrigued, confirms that the invisible driver is there, and returns to observing the many pharmacies along the way. Due to the changes in shots and cameras, we immediately notice that it is the insertion of a fictional short film into the film.

The expedient, I interpreted it this way, superimposes the grace of fiction on the possible nostalgic feeling that the film inspires. Barely comparing, like the invisible narrator-driver during the film who takes us on a tour of his own house and Recife. And, involved by the poetics of the narrative and imagery route, we see, at various moments, suggested here and there, remedies to some of the ills of the changes that time has brought to movie theaters, buildings, people's feelings and the city. ghost portraits It is, for this reason and much more, a portrait, sculpted in carrara, of a few joys and the varied sadnesses of Brazil.

We went back to the cinema to review ghost portraits. It was a renewed pleasure in another street cinema, Petra Belas Artes, Carmen Miranda room, in a 19pm session, on a rainy Thursday. We arrived half an hour early, to have a coffee and enjoy some of the old-time atmosphere in the still-surviving group of movie theaters. It was enough for me, surprised, to realize that I had forgotten my notebook and pen to take notes on some passages in the film that caught my attention from the first time we saw it. Luckily, I saw that at the box office they sold promotional pens and pencils for the cinema; I bought a pen and asked the saleswoman for a sheet of paper. I was finally equipped for the session.

I folded the bond paper to get better support in an attempt to guide the writing in the dark. My intention was to record the names that the director gives to each of the three parts into which he divides the film. I wanted to note certain formulations about his mother, about the experience of cinema in the director's house, about the transformations and the end of movie theaters. from Recife. He remained attentive to each speech, noting proper names, dates and names of places, feelings and jokes, the mention of signs and marquees, the composition of images that resulted in a type of silent conversation between the cinema and the director, like the narrator of the film. film tells us. I had the impression that I was retaining, as I was, something more than the first time allowed. This time, it was a more conscious pleasure in the relationship with the film, but not any less.

When the film ended, I folded the sheet once again and put it in my pocket, waiting for a more intimate and domestic moment to check the records, more or less as if I had a little treasure waiting for me. We went to dinner. Back in the elevator, I put on my glasses and took the paper out of my pocket and discovered, half vexed and half shocked, that it was blank. I searched my pockets in an attempt to find another piece of paper, but nothing. I went back to the sheet and realized that throughout the session the pen had failed, registering at most only a few illegible marks of ghost writing, in line, therefore, I concluded desolately, with the very spirit of the film. I ended up thinking it was fair.

*Denilson Cordeiro Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Exact and Earth Sciences at Unifesp, Diadema campus.


ghost portraits
Brazil, documentary, 2023, 93 minutes
Direction and script: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Editing: Matheus Farias
Director of photography: Pedro Sotero

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