ghost portraits

James Ensor, The Entry of Christ into Brussels


Comment on the new film by Kleber Mendonça Filho, showing in theaters

Documentary is perhaps not the best definition for this hybrid of historical record, memoirs, essay and fiction. Narrated in the first person by the director himself, it is a journey that starts from the apartment where he lived for forty years, in the Recife neighborhood of Setúbal/Boa Viagem, and unfolds like a ball of yarn, covering the capital of Pernambuco, Brazil and the world.

urban archeology

At first, it seems like an agile autobiographical chronicle, which speaks of the historian mother and her relationship with the domestic environment, but also of the first cinematographic experiences, Super-8 films and videos made by Kleber with his brother and neighbors. Over the decades, the apartment underwent transformations and served as a location for several works by the director, in particular for The sound around. With admirable ease, mixing old photos, Home movies, excerpts from his films and images captured today, the filmmaker gives that space a life that crosses generations and connects it with the history of the city.

We then move on, without a hitch, to the cinemas of old Recife, now almost completely extinct: Trianon, Art Palácio, Moderno, Politeama, Veneza… An entire urban archeology connected with the architectural, social and affective history of the city is then outlined. – whose general processes occurred in a similar way in so many other metropolises in the world.

The scope is broad, well-informed and well-documented (including excerpts from films made by other Pernambuco directors), always linking the individual (the old Trianon projectionist, the street vendor who collected memorabilia from the rubbish of foreign distributors to sell at a stall, etc. .) in general: the marks of dictatorship and censorship, the oppressive presence of majors American companies, real estate speculation, changes in culture and customs.

Along the way, some episodes call special attention. For example, the information that the Art Palácio in Recife, like the one in São Paulo, was a creation of the German producer and distributor UFA at a time when the Nazi regime took advantage of the leniency (or sympathy) of the Vargas government to extend here its ideological tentacles.

Cinema, religion, fantasy

The last part of the film highlights the curious and complex connection between cinema and religion. We learn, for example, that the venerable Cine São Luiz – the last remnant of the golden age of large cinemas – was built where a church from the time of the empire used to stand. The director/narrator draws attention to the fact that the place is repeatedly called the “temple of cinema”, and also to the recurrence of Catholic images in the language of moviegoers: “A Glauber or a Hitchcock to watch on your knees”. The other face of this connection is more brutal: the transformation of old movie theaters into evangelical temples.

All this is shown fluently, with a camera that scrutinizes the spaces and their transformations, supported in the montage by the most diverse materials: films, photos, newspaper clippings.

The filmmaker's locution oscillates between humor and a certain melancholy. When, in the last part, the tone seems to approach nostalgic melodrama, there is a slightly comic turn, in a fictional sequence that stages an Uber trip through the city.

It is also, so to speak, the explanation of a vein of fantastic cinema that had been insinuating itself occasionally throughout the documentary: the accidental photo of a specter by the young Kleber, the barking of a dog that has already died, the “mutation” of a cinema marquee while scanning a photo, the lid of a scanner that closes by itself, etc., not to mention the filmmaker's own youthful horror shorts. The title ghost portraits, anyway, has much more than one meaning.

Speaking of titles: the great artist from Pernambuco, Cícero Dias, painted a huge panel in the 1920s called “I saw the world…it started in Recife”. It could be an alternative title for the beautiful film by Kleber Mendonça Filho.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on IMS film blog .


ghost portraits
Brazil, Documentary, 2023, 93 minutes
Script and direction: Kleber Mendonça Filho.

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