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Movie review: Memories linger in 'Pictures of Ghosts'

James Verniere, Boston Herald on

Published in Entertainment News

Brazil’s selection for the Oscar race, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s nonfiction memoir “Pictures of Ghosts,” starts out as a “Roma”-style evocation of his childhood home life in Recife, Brazil, where he practiced the art of filmmaking as a child with his family members and neighbors (and their animals) as his cast, using a variety of techniques, including VHS and Super 8. We meet Nico, the long dead dog on a roof next door. The dog’s almost constant barking is seen by some as a safeguard, others as a nuisance. On film, Nico barks again.

We move on to the city’s most exclusive hotel, where Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, also gone now, were captured on film strolling along the nearby beach with their young daughters.

The celebrity sighting, complete with a glimpse of a “Psycho” poster, is prophetic because Mendonca Filho will take his camera to his neighborhood cinemas where he spent much of his time growing up. In an evocation of the films “Cinema Paradiso” (1988) and “Empire of Light” (2022), we enter the cinemas’ forges: the projection booths, where hot, sweaty men use concentrated fire to generate the powerful light needed to project the images from celluloid onto the screens below.

One of these men, Alexandre Moura, complains bitterly about having to watch the classic “The Godfather” several times a day for four months. Recife’s non-air-conditioned cinemas will fall into decline and lose their customers as would downtown Recife itself. In old, archival footage, downtown Recife at Carnaval is overflowing with crowds so thick that people can barely move.

Over time, Mendonca Filho’s home will be renovated twice by his mother, Joselice, a historian who will get sick and die. Bars and wire increasingly surround his home. Mendonca Filho shoots through these so many times, “Pictures of Ghosts” becomes a new film genre: memoir noir. The apartment is suddenly empty. Cinema is like time travel. You can go backward or forward. You can stop and gaze at Joselice, alive again, watering plants.

In the 1970s, the money left Recife like it did New York City. Mendonca Filho shows us a page of film ads in a 1977 newspaper, many of them variations on the words “King Kong” because there was a “Kong” craze going on. Even a sexy Sonia Braga effort had a title with a “Kong”-like ring.

Theater marquees are like clocks. Film titles and the names of movie stars are runic. John Boorman’s “Point Blank” (1967) arrives in time for a Brazilian military dictatorship. The military later chooses childishly to censor the musical “Hair.” Like magic, “futurist films” become documentaries. Theaters in decline are bought in the 1980s by evangelicals and turned into churches. Somehow, the décor fits. One cinema was designed to resemble the “tent of a Crusader,” complete with coats of arms, stained glass and other religious touches. In “Pictures of Ghosts,” cinema is where all things live again.

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'PICTURES OF GHOSTS'

(In Portuguese with English subtitles)

Grade: A-

MPA rating: Not rated (contains ribald film poster imagery and mature themes)

Running time: 1:33

How to watch: Now in theaters

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