Review: Kleber Mendonça Filho Bravely Preserves a Piece of Moviegoing History in Pictures of Ghosts

The city of Santurce used to be, when I was growing up in the 1970s and early '80s, the moviegoing mecca for those who called the San Juan Metropolitan Area home. Dozens of movie theaters dotted the Ponce de León and Fernández Juncos avenues, which run parallel to each other in opposite directions. I can still list them in order: The Metropolitan, Radio City, Excelsior, Music Hall, Matienzo, New Broadway, Puerto Rico, Paramount, Metro, Ambassador and Miramar on Ponce de León; Cortes, the New San Juan, Regency, Rex Cinema, Miramar, and Cinerama on Fernández Juncos. I can also list the movies I saw in each: The Front starring Woody Allen and Brian de Palma’s The Fury at the Metropolitan; Excalibur at the Excelsior; Logan’s Run at the New Broadway; The Outlaw Josey Wales, Rocky, Blue Thunder and WarGames at the Puerto Rico; Return of the Jedi and Out of Africa at the Metro; Rollerball at the Cinerama, and so on. (You can learn more about these theaters here.)

But then came the duplexes and megaplexes, the shopping centers and shiny glass buildings that still serve as headquarters for the island’s banking industry, and Santurce fell into disrepair, often ignored by San Juan’s municipal government. Today, only the three-screen Metro and the five-screen Fine Arts Cinema Miramar (formerly the Miramar) operate as movie theaters; most of the others have been demolished, turned into megachurches, repurposed for stage productions or simply abandoned. Fortunately, Santurce is currently enjoying a cultural renaissance of sorts thanks to a generation of young, urban artists and restaurateurs who, through art fairs, outdoor events, a new restaurant district, alternative music scene venues and even a food truck zone, have given it new life.

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s native city of Recife, in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast, underwent a similar transformation from its heydays as an important commercial hub to its current decline, forgotten by the powers that be as multi-million dollar skyscrapers grow across the river. And yet, like Santurce, it survives and thrives, unwilling to give up. The director of Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius and Bacurau offers in Pictures of Ghosts his second feature documentary, a love letter to the Recife of his youth, to his mother and, most importantly, to the movies and the theaters where he saw them. Pictures of Ghosts is a bemused essay about the past, about our moviegoing memories. Mendonça Filho taps into those memories to create a record of a changing world and preserve a specific aspect of a city’s history before it’s too late.

Mendonça Filho goes from the micro to the macro as he starts his film essay at the same apartment where he shot most of his shorts and a good chunk of his first two fiction features, and which he still calls home. He relies on his personal video and film archive to resurrect these moments: shots of friends covered in fake blood; of the director himself behind the camera lying on the floor, setting up a shot; of the different stages of the apartment's renovations; of his own mother; and his wife and children in present time, some of them running around the cluttered apartment in their underwear.

The movies are always present: in posters, books, stills that the young Kleber bought on the streets and that are now piled up and strewn around the apartment. Like Spielberg, you rarely see Kleber without a still, film or video camera in hand. Shots from inside or outside his home, from surrounding streets meld into similar shots from Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius to the point where you can’t actually distinguish between the real and the filmed…because, for Mendonça Filho, there is no such distinction. 

From his apartment and surroundings, Mendonça Filho takes us to downtown Recife on a tour of its old movie houses and other establishments. An evangelical church now stands where Livro 7, a huge bookstore, used to be located; the phrase “freedom for the customer to choose a book” is written at the bottom of a black and white photograph of the bookstore’s interior. An old newsreel shows Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh walking down one of Recife’s bridges as part of a photo opp (earlier we saw footage of Janet with Jamie Lee and her sister leaving the hotel they were staying at). Three movie palaces used to face each other on that bridge: the Art Palacio, The Veneza and the Cinema São Luiz. Only the São Luiz still stands as a theater, even though it’s been shut down since the pandemic (Mendonça Filho recently joined a protest right outside its doors demanding an explanation for its continued closure).

As a film student, Mendonça Filho recorded the Art Palacio’s last two years through photographs and a VHS camera, interviewing its last projectionist, Alexandre Moura, who candidly recalls how, after playing The Godfather for four consecutive months, switched places with the projectionist of a rival theater, so tired was he of seeing the film. The Art Palacio’s history is even tied to Nazi Germany; it was built, with the support of Brazil’s then fascist ruler, to help spread Nazi propaganda but the effort fizzled. 

Recife was once the center of Brazil’s film distribution network. All of Hollywood’s studios had offices in the same building but its caretaker refuses to acknowledge the role the building played in Brazil’s thriving film industry. Posters, stills, press kits, even cans full of film reels were thrown into the trash, collected and sold in Recife’s flea markets, some even located right in front of the theaters. Mendonça Filho never asks the obvious question: how many wonderful, almost forgotten, films in need of restoration were in those cans and in whose hands are they now?

The third and weakest chapter of the entire endeavor argues that cinemas are akin to churches, places where communities are built to share the same experience, enthralled by the people and stories projected on screen. So, it should come to no surprise that most of these old cinemas have been repurposed as evangelical churches (just as the Metropolitan in Santurce was). After all, cinemas are already fully equipped to host a congregation. And even though Mendonça Filho shows these churches’ parishioners in sheer religious ecstasy, he doesn’t quite address the elephant in the room, especially given evangelism’s growing influence in Brazilian society: has God displaced the movies in particular and culture in general? He may have pointed earlier to the fact that a bookstore was replaced by a church but he doesn’t quite connect the dots. For a film as ruminative as this one, it feels like a missed opportunity.

By sharing part of Brazil’s moviegoing history, Pictures of Ghosts, like Mark Cousins’ films and Inés Toharia Terán’s Film: The Living Record of our Memory, expands our cinephilic horizons. Downtown Recife was not immune to the forces that displaced and partially destroyed moviegoing in its downtown; just think about the many movie theaters and palaces that once dotted downtown Chicago. The film represents a brave and much needed act of restoration and preservation in a country, not to mention a continent, that does not have the means to preserve its film history (especially after the fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira’s storage facility in São Paulo’s Vila Leopoldina two and a half years ago which destroyed literally tons of documents plus newsreels, miscellaneous items and the undigitized portion of Glauber Rocha’s library).

Pictures of Ghosts, in the end, left me hoping that some enterprising filmmaker in Puerto Rico would do for those almost forgotten movie theaters in Santurce what Mendonça Filho did for movie theaters in Recife before it’s too late. 

Pictures of Ghosts opens exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 26.

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Alejandro Riera