My first trip to the cinema was a Tom & Jerry marathon in 1973, at the São Luiz Cinema in Recife.

The film show really began outside. It wasn’t just about going into the screening room and sitting down. The experience started when you were on the sidewalk outside the cinema. I have these near-physical memories of stepping on the pavement and feeling the fresh air coming from the air conditioning, and the smell of popcorn and sweets, and the way the posters were organised at the entrance with displays for each of their sibling cinemas.

Going there was really about the whole experience – you don’t really get it in a multiplex. Of course, I kept going to the São Luiz all my life. It happens to be closed now due to the pandemic, but hopefully it will come back as soon as everything goes back to normal.

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A full house at the São Luiz

The São Luiz is programmed by Geraldo Pinho and his team, who are in love with the place and have managed to keep that atmosphere going. It is the one cinema from my childhood that survived. It opened in 1952 and closed in 2006, but was then restored and brought back to life by the local government. It reopened in 2010, and for the last ten years it has become ground zero for the local film scene, with very interesting programming that tries to show everything that multiplexes won’t show. It’s the story of all of the wonderful, alternative screening palaces that still exist in the world, trying to do something different, trying to screen wonderful, classic films.

It wasn’t changed at all by the restoration. Down to the light fixtures and decor it’s untouched. It has an amazing, almost bizarre atmosphere. It’s a huge building, with 1,200 seats, and the decor is incredibly kitsch and complex. It tries to emulate the style of the French king Louis IX during the crusades. When you’re in the auditorium it’s like you’re in a very ornate tent. On the sides you have battle shields and fleurs-de-lis, and on either side of the screen you have eye-catching stained glass.

Today we run a festival at the São Luiz [Janela Internacional de Cinema do Recife] and I think the cinema is a big part of what the festival is. We have a thousand people lining up around the block outside waiting for a screening to begin, and another thousand inside. To have that kind of energy around a movie palace from the 50s is something very special.

For my film Bacurau, the São Luiz was the top screening house in Brazil for five weeks. On a Tuesday afternoon you can have 700 people watching a local film, which is just amazing.

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A bustling crowd at Janela Internacional de Cinema do Recife, held at the São Luiz

We have around 80 multiplex screens in Recife, and then we have three cinemas which show the stuff that won’t go to the multiplex. So it’s three against 80, but somehow it’s enough to generate a very strong energy and a strong film scene in Recife. There were other great movie palaces around the downtown areas which I loved, particularly the Veneza, which closed in 1998. In January [2021] they’re reopening another palace, the [Teatro do] Parque, which is about 300 metres from the São Luiz. It’s from 1919 and they have restored it back how it looked in 1930, when it premiered talking pictures in the city. Recife is lucky because most big cities haven’t been able to save places like that, and we have two now.

Early in October cinemas reopened [in Brazil, having closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic] but I didn’t think it was a very good idea. We have had a big push from the far-right government to get everything back working. The situation has been a little better in Pernambuco state [of which Recife is the capital], which has quite a progressive local government in terms of dealing with the pandemic, but it’s just a mess everywhere else. Some of the cinemas are beginning to close again. The São Luiz never reopened.

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The São Luiz in 2020: “Take care – Soon we will be together”

I haven’t seen a film in the cinema since March but I have seen many, many, many films at home. My kids and I have a 6pm screening every day.

I think it’s a very difficult situation for cinemas. Before the pandemic we had streaming catching up, which was a challenge in the same way that cinemas had to deal with television in the 50s and VCRs in the 80s, and with the pandemic it’s like two blows. Cinemas are part of the market but if the industry finds a way of making money some other way they will sacrifice the filmgoing experience.

  • Kleber Mendonça Filho was talking to Thomas Flew.

Further reading

Bacurau review: a tough and timeless Brazilian frontier western

By Nick Pinkerton

Bacurau review: a tough and timeless Brazilian frontier western

Brazilian cinema in crisis

By Jonathan Romney

Brazilian cinema in crisis

Brazil’s film archive is facing wipeout

Brazil’s film archive is facing wipeout

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