Image of movie Retratos fantasmas

The Centre of the Universe

19 Oct 2023

The Centre of the Universe

A text by Victor Morozov.

The Centre of the Universe: Retratos Fantasmas by Kleber Mendonça Filho

No sound, no movement, no memory would ever be lost again if every city in the world would be looked at with a gaze as attentive as Kleber Mendonça Filho's when it comes to Recife. Since this is not even remotely the case, one is left to admire and ponder the sensible richness of Retratos Fantasmas, his latest film – an audiovisual glimpse of an ideal world in which the layers of the urban tissue communicate and overlap without slipping into obscurity.

Fascinated by the ever-changing landscape of the city centre – how buildings emerge out of nowhere, only to succumb to inevitable decay – this is a film whose own architecture feels both intricate and coherent, designed by the standards of the current image format explosion, be they triumphalist newsreels from the old days or 'humble' personal archive footage. Few filmmakers can boast such a sustained fascination with the sounds of the neighbourhood (the very apt title of his first feature from 2012), yet this never feels confined to a purely intimate perspective. On the contrary, the film’s merit lies in its ability to make us care for the interiors of the filmmaker’s own apartment, as years and decades are chronicled through the constant evolution of technology, in agreement with a meandering artistic personality.

If ever there was proof needed, Retratos Fantasmas shows that you can make a film with what you have at hand. For Mendonça Filho, it’s all about understanding where to position yourself in this world – not only the how of the cinema trade, but also the place where you are speaking from. Markedly Brazilian, this documentary is so anchored in its native spaces – a triangle of cinema theatres in Recife – that it seems to belong to a time less globalized, when news still travelled slowly and arrived within more or less isolated neighborhoods.

It has become commonplace to regard Mendonça Filho as one of the most remarkable artistic talents catapulted onto the international festival scene in the past decade. Yet it is intriguing to observe how he appears less preoccupied with the new imagery, the reels and the VR of this expanding audiovisual world. Instead, his sensibility readily embraces a reservoir of collective passion. However, to label his film as an artefact of pure nostalgia would be a mistake. (If it is so, it is one of immense erudition that never avoids contradiction and nuance.)

The film openly acknowledges feeling lost in this present world. There is great wisdom and humility in this attitude. Mendonça Filho is too honest to hastily jump in the fast-moving carriage of crazed images or to disavow his own cultural heritage. As retrospective as it may seem, Retratos Fantasmas feels so timely due to its inclusive and egalitarian approach to all available source material: a basic cinematic syntax that creates wonders, as the last sequence of the film masterfully exemplifies. It is perhaps this radical openness that prevents the film from falling in love with its own images. Instead, it allows its narrative to achieve humanist magnitudes, gently reminding us of how cinema used to mean something for almost everybody. Every 'old-school' cinephile, Mendonça Filho seems to say, is nowadays being haunted by this ghost. There’s no shame in recognizing that.



For the first time the VIENNALE hosts a YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE. A group of young, international film critics are working under the editorial and organisational guidance of author and film critic Patrick Holzapfel on a number of texts dealing with the programme of this year's festival. This initiative is related to our commitment regarding the perception and discussion of film criticism in its permanent state of crisis.


Image of movie Retratos fantasmas


Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil 2023 | 93 min | OV w/ EN subtitles

Saturday, October 21 2023:
6.30 pm - Urania

Sunday, October 29 2023:
11.00 am - Metro, Historischer Saal