Julian (The Film Seeker)’s review published on Letterboxd:
Brazil’s Letterboxd community is a passionate one. Much of the acclaim for the country’s very regionally oriented output, it would seem, stems from these films’ equally impassioned—and generally lost-in-translation—allusions to the country’s often-volatile political climate. While Pictures of Ghosts, as one can deduce by its title, aims its focus primarily on the past, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s personal documentary offers a bruising-yet-touching portrait of how these ghosts can haunt us to this day.
Aiming his eye at the various corners of his local Recife that inspired his past films—the home movies and Cannes favourites alike—Mendonça views these landmarks with the sort of tenderness one would expect from examinations of one’s own past. The decrepit theatres and refurbished homes are given comparable weight in the eyes of an artist who’s found every one of them important enough to touch upon so many years later.
As can be expected, Pictures of Ghosts ties the history of these locales to the political movements that directly affected them—their construction under Nazi control and their subsequent implementations of censorship, to name a few points of discussion. Nevertheless, Mendonça doesn’t forget to bring everything down to a human level to remind us why these establishments held such a lasting impact for many in the first place; his presentation of an enthusiastic projectionist who lived through it all—from the Gestapo-run opening to the final shuttering of the windows—is probably the most earnest (and thus memorable) segment of the film.
With such a rife socio-political history to discuss and a promising framing device from which to discuss it, Pictures of Ghosts often feels surprisingly soft in its intended goal. Kleber Mendonça Filho seems to want to split the difference between a stirring examination of Brazil’s past and present and Cinema Paradiso, and while there’s certainly an angle to be unlocked there—and the film’s final phantasmic image is appropriately haunting and poetic—Pictures of Ghosts oftentimes feels like it’s just short of fully opening those floodgates. We get some touchingly personal anecdotes, but it’s as if the only tool he had to unlock the full power of these memories was a key of tears…