Cannes 2023 review: Pictures of Ghosts (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

“The most appropriate description of what the director achieved in Pictures of Ghosts is that he produced a deeply personal account of a universal experience, looking at themes that will resonate with a broad audience, but through his own perspective.”

Nearly every major city has a specific filmmaker to which it is inextricably tied – Rome has Fellini, New York has Allen and Tokyo has Ozu. In the case of Recife, the historical city has been captured on a few occasions by Kleber Mendonça Filho, who has made several films set within his hometown, with his most recent being perhaps the sincerest examination of the city in which he came of age. As we venture through Pictures of Ghosts (Retratos Fantasmas), the director’s fascinating and deeply moving multidimensional documentary, we discover certain aspects of this Brazilian city that serve as both an introduction to those who are not familiar with it, and for those with some knowledge of this urban area and its history, a chance to see a new side of it as curated by a filmmaker who puts together a wonderfully unique depiction of the place in which he developed, both physically and artistically. An endearing and gently eccentric meditation that juxtaposes the past and present with remarkable fluidity, Pictures of Ghosts is a unique exploration of a particular set of ideas, which Mendonça conveys through this engaging work that blends poetic imagination with engaging non-fiction storytelling. This results in one of the year’s most meaningful films, as formed by a truly ingenious artist who has proven himself a most gifted contemporary filmmaker, even when stepping out of his usual style and pursuing something entirely different, yet still so deeply tied to his identity and curiosity as a storyteller who is keenly aware of every detail and the role it plays in the broader identity of his work.

There is a famous quote by photographer Diane Arbus that I return to when looking at films of this nature: “A photograph is a secret about a secret – the more it tells you, the less you know”. This is a concise way to describe Pictures of Ghosts, which is built almost entirely on the concept of using images from the past to tell a profoundly modern story, one that blurs the boundary between the past and present in very creative and artistically resonant ways. Mendonça combines a variety of different kinds of footage – personal home video recordings, archival video of the city taken from newsreels, fragments of the director’s films and new footage shot specifically for this film, which serves more as a way to tie all the themes together rather than contributing anything new, since the existing footage is the focus of the film. In the process, the director curates these fragments of video, repurposing them to tell a broader story that depicts the past with exceptional complexity and unquestionable beauty. The “secrets” that Mendonça is examining throughout this film all have to do with the buildings of his native Recife – whether the apartment complex in which he was raised and made his earliest films, or the grandiose cinemas that stood at the edges of the bustling Brazilian streets. There is history embedded in these buildings, which the director constantly refers to as having personalities or “demeanours”, which may shift in appearance over time (one of the most poetic ironies we find in this film is the liberal bookstore that eventually became a church), but the historical resonance of what they represent remains the same, consistent even through the inevitability of change.

Pictures of Ghosts is a film with many broadly ambitious ideas, but its execution is far simpler, which is appropriate for the story being told. At its heart, we have a film that is essentially a whistle-stop tour of Mendonça’s past, both his upbringing in this South American metropolis and his growth into one of the most respected and engaging filmmakers of his generation – all done by reflecting on the locations that played a part in all facets of his development. Narrated by the director himself, the film often feels like an intimate conversation between a master of his craft and his student, as he recounts stories from the past, taking us on a vivid and meaningful journey into his childhood, piecing together his own development by showing the most important locations that served as the stage for his growth, both psychologically and artistically. We are watching the birth of an artist, pieced together by fragments of his past – the archival footage was never intended to be used for this purpose, most of it being incidental home video recordings, but through his ingenuity and determination to craft something meaningful and insightful, the director manages to cobble together a deeply personal odyssey, reflecting on his own growth. An odyssey he generously shares with us through this often abstract but touching film, which is both nostalgic and intellectually provocative, a combination only possible with as seasoned a director as Mendonça at the helm.

Over the course of Pictures of Ghosts, we see a director engaging with his past, focusing on his individual development, which coincides with a growing love for cinema. The field of films celebrating the proverbial and cliched “magic of movies” is certainly oversaturated, but it is impossible to find an approach like the one Mendonça takes anything less than exhilarating. This film is an ode to the place and people (both named and unnamed, with the individual characters being just as important as the masses of people who appear throughout the film) that defined not only his growth as an artist, but the development of his worldview. The film’s thesis statement is based on exploring how physical places can impact our upbringing in various ways. These are not just static buildings, but vibrant constructions, simmering with history that goes back generations, and which will continue to develop and shift in their own identity and purpose as time progresses, influencing future generations just as much as they did Mendonça. He uses the film to celebrate these places that are a cherished part of his memory, which he is all too eager to revisit over the course of this magnificent and emotionally resonant documentary. The most appropriate description of what the director achieved in Pictures of Ghosts is that he produced a deeply personal account of a universal experience, looking at themes that will resonate with a broad audience, but through his own perspective. It allows for a subtle but affecting examination of the past, which is excavated with care and reverence by a director who has a firm grasp on the collective cultural pulse, which is tenderly formed into this daring and bittersweet work.

(c) Image copyright: Cinemascópio