In film scholar Gilberto Perez’s incredibly perceptive book on the ontology of cinema, The Material Ghost, the moving pictures are always, well, moving: between documentary and fiction, reality and representation, material and immaterial. They’re not just, as film theorist Andre Bazin argued, imprints of reality; neither are they, like psycho-analytical film theory posited, just a false mirror to reality. They are always in flux: “images [carrying] something of the world itself, something material, and yet something transposed, transformed into another world.” This mysterious somewhere — full of something real, something unreal — is distinctive to film and only film. Space, and especially, time, firmly fixed in photography, painting, and theater, are much more uncertain here: you could be sitting in the now right now, but then suddenly comes a hard cut or the jolt of a movement within the frame and bang, you’re in that somewhere where past, present, future, and place all feel suspended.
Pictures of Ghosts, the latest film from Brazilian film critic-turned-filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, is a gently amusing 93-minute visualization of The Material Ghost’s somewhere. It is, by design, a film caught between the real and the imagined, each distinguished by time but seemingly amalgamated by cinema. Filho desires to explore the imagined: his hometown in Brazil, Recife, about 30 to 40 years before 2023, when the cinemas he frequented and defined what he is now stood tall. It sounds a bit like nostalgia porn: a sentimentalist essay film from a middle-aged filmmaker that’s all about what was, without wanting to engage with what is and what’s to come (you can do them well, of course; see Terence Davies’ sublime reminiscence of Liverpool in 2008’s Of Time and the City). But Filho’s methodology is firmly situated in the real: he wants to mix-and-match and mix-and-mismatch the home movie-style footage he shot in his childhood and young adulthood with two of his films set in and around the city — Neighboring Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016) — and professionally shot footage of modern-day Recife. The objective is simple: to make a movie that, as Filho’s softly-spoken, clearly elucidated narration states, is a “bringing together [of] the mundane and some cinema look.”
While the film reifies this sentiment plenty through words, it really captures it best by throwing you into the whirlwinds of multiple Recifes, each visible one second and invisible the next, but seemingly always alive. Matheus Farias’ terrifically jumpy editing is key to this: it places and displaces you constantly. The match-cuts and sequential editing — especially prominent in the film’s first section that centers around Filho’s house — unify Recife then, in Neighboring Sounds, and now. But the nature of the images themselves — earlier sections shot on grainy Super 8 and low-quality VHS cameras with a boxy aspect ratio, newer sections shot on pristine digital with wide aspect ratios — never allows these distinctive worlds to wholly cohere. Other times, determining the time chronology itself is not straightforward. Does that mean that Filho’s experiment to reach the imagined past through cinema is unsuccessful? Most certainly. But in not reaching there, Picture of Ghosts reaches that somewhere where all of Filho’s Recife becomes a blur: a hazy combination of past and present, actualities and imagination.
DIRECTOR: Kleber Mendonça Filho; DISTRIBUTOR: Grasshopper Film; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.