Early in “Pictures of Ghosts,” an exhilarating documentary about specters onscreen and off, the Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, pulls out a VHS tape. It’s of a 1981 TV interview with his mother, Joselice, a historian who died at age 54. In close-up, she discusses gathering information left out of history, an approach that her son has embraced here. After the tape abruptly cuts off, he says in voice-over, “it may seem like I’m discussing methodology” — as if speaking now both for his mother and for himself — “but I’m talking about love.”
Love suffuses “Pictures of Ghosts,” a cleareyed, deeply personal and formally inspired rumination on life, death, family, movies and those complicated, invariably haunted places we call home. Divided into three fluidly edited sections that build into a cohesive whole, the movie draws from both original and archival material, including photographs, newsreels, home movies, amateur films and images sampled from Mendonça Filho’s features. The results unfold at the crossroads of fiction and documentary, a space that Mendonça Filho knows well. “Fiction films are the best documentaries,” as a character in a movie says here.
A film critic turned filmmaker, Mendonça Filho is best known for his own fictional movies, most notably “Aquarius” (2016). A nuanced, idiosyncratic drama set in his hometown, Recife, a northeastern port city on the Atlantic coast, it centers on a music critic (Sônia Braga), her circle of intimates, the enviably ocean-facing apartment in which she lives and the gentrification that she resists. It’s about stasis and change, memory and loss, art and commerce as well as a struggle for sovereignty. The building’s owners are trying to force her out, which means that it’s also about money and power — all themes that haunt “Pictures of Ghosts.”
“Aquarius” is also about the critic’s bright, roomy apartment, one that Mendonça Filho knows intimately, having lived in it “one way or another” for much of his life, as he explains in the voice-over. His mother bought it in 1979 and Mendonça Filho was 10 when they moved in; later, he lived there with his own family. With his mother’s encouragement, the apartment became an endlessly useful (sound) stage for his youthful cinematic dreams. He drops in clips from some of the dozen or so movies he made in it, including images from his early works and later films like “Neighboring Sounds” (2012). In one early snippet, a poster for Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is mounted on a door; in “Aquarius,” a poster for Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” hangs on a wall, an emblem of the Braga character’s sensibilities.
“Pictures of Ghosts” is steeped in Mendonça Filho’s seemingly boundless cinephilia. With smoothly dynamic editing, he revisits the foundation for that movie love in the first section — love that here feels inseparable from his love for his mother and for the home they shared — and comes to an apotheosis in the second and longest section. In this part, “The Cinemas of Downtown Recife,” he revisits this rundown district of the city. From roughly the ages of 13 to 25, he explains in his measured, lightly melancholic narration, he journeyed downtown several times a week to watch movies. At the time, the area was a hub of activity crowded with people and busy cinemas; it looks like a ghost town now.
As he does throughout, Mendonça Filho associatively jumps from idea to idea, space to space, image to image (a glamorous Janet Leigh, scenes from the city’s carnival). Everything — art and politics, past and present — flows into a seamless whole. At one point, he scans a page from a 1970s newspaper filled with tiny movie ads, most for “King Kong” flicks that presumably sought to exploit the popularity of the Dino De Laurentiis remake. At the bottom of the page, though, he also singles out an ad for “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” the 1978 film that made Braga an international star, bringing this movie back to “Aquarius.”
For all of its humor and buoyancy there’s a strain of sadness in “Pictures of Ghosts,” and glimmers of anger. At one point, Mendonça Filho visits a derelict building that once housed offices for the major Hollywood studios. “The industry sets up the infrastructure for distribution,” he says as he tours the desolate halls, “then throws it all out.” The crisis-plagued movie industry, as any film lover knows, always breaks your heart. Even so, as Mendonça Filho gracefully proves in scene after scene, there are always filmmakers who restore your faith by, say, turning a loving home into a love of cinema. And while he and his family have now moved out of the apartment, I also have faith that he will never truly leave it.
Pictures of Ghosts
Not rated. In Portuguese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.