Returning from his strong output in Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s three-part docufiction uses his home of Recife as a  springboard to explore  the local haunts behind his life and Brazil’s cinematic history. As fascinating as it is to see his childhood apartment (in both early home recordings and cameos from his feature films such as Aquarius and Neighbouring Sounds,) the auteur’s latest offering at times feels like going on an interesting walk with a boring man. 

There’s enough to carry you through, however. Mendonça’s ability to frame a window or wall into something beautiful is a constant technical marvel. Despite the navel-gazing, it is buildings, not people, that are the real focus of the movie. Leaving his apartment, the camera settles at a sleepy twilight street below. The scene is pretty enough, but by adding an extra touch of artificial lighting,  you realize it’s the same picturesque location from Neighbouring Sounds—a flourish that has the satisfaction of revealing a well-timed trick.

It’s these moments that form the spirit of his piece. Cinema, to Mendonça, is a mixture of the mundane and the magical. Using film as a form of exhumation, for the rest of the movie Mendonça explores the history of his local area, with Recife’s peeling cinemas becoming a canvas to discuss war, gentrification and religion. It’s here that the documentary leans a little too much on the mundane. There’s nothing wrong with Mendonça’s musical choice (excellent bossanova) or tracking shots (nearly always inventive) but his personal style of narrating is sleepy. With all the urgency of a coma, the 1hr 31m film tilts into archival footage and an essay style that examines the hundred year rise and fall of his beloved downtown neighborhood’s culture with a meandering pace. Loose in characters and topics to keep it all grounded, Pictures of Ghosts often feels as flat as the walls Mendonça so skillfully frames. 

Despite the setbacks, it’s enjoyable to float through these moments of film history, and the visuals remain strong. Climaxing with a taxi cameo by the director, the film moves into a docufiction style seamlessly. It’s this surreal note that revels in Mendonça’s ability to contrast the easy joys of modern Brazil with a wistfulness—and the film’s strange, melancholy destination wraps up the themes of home and history well. For fans of the director—or the very patient—the strong end will justify the wait.