Film Review: Elena

Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa’s impressive debut feature, a melding of documentary and narrative forms, chronicles the quest that began with her discovery of her dead sister’s diary.
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Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa was a student in an acting class when she discovered her sister’s diary. Elena had committed suicide more than a decade earlier, when Costa was seven-and-a-half years old, and she, her sister and their mother were living in New York City. Elena also dreamed of becoming an actress, but feeling dispirited by her lack of success, she spiraled into depression and drug abuse. In a visually stunning debut “documentary,” Costa melds childhood photos and videos, reenactments, archival footage shot by Elena, Elena’s audiotapes, and a few original interviews, most notably with her mother, to tell the story of her great loss. While the resulting film is called Elena, it is about Costa’s search for identity.

The writer-director blurs many of her images, her mise-en-scène emerging from the feeling that she was reliving Elena’s life. At the start of the movie, Costa is in New York on her quest to discover the trajectory of her sister’s decline. As the writer-director walks the streets, she listens to Elena’s audiotaped letters home to Brazil, sent after she first arrived in the city alone. Snippets of those letters are followed by Costa’s voiceover narration, chronicling her struggle to differentiate herself from Elena. While this stylistic device of unfocused images is evocative, at times it is as self-conscious as Costa’s narration, plunging the film into the turgid rhythms of “personal documentary,” although it never remains there for long.

Elena’s compelling subtext, a depiction of a female family history of depression, leads to a skillfully structured movie which begins with Elena’s depression, and moves to Costa’s, as she falters and then looks to her mother for answers, before finally relinquishing Elena’s voice to become herself. At first, it is a frantic attempt on the part of the filmmaker to chart the guilt, remorse and turmoil which marked her childhood after Elena’s suicide, frantic because at the start of the movie, she is approaching the age at which her sister died. She ticks off the passage of her birthdays, 17, then 18 and, finally, 21, at which point her mother remarks that she is now past the age of her sister’s drug overdose. It is a chilling moment, which Costa cuts away from too quickly.

The filmmaker’s omissions of actual family history, of the details of her parents’ divorce, and the rather glaring absence of her father from the narrative, provide an impressionistic portrait of depression. It is inspired at first by Costa’s conceit that she is chronicling events from the standpoint of her seven-and-half-year-old self. Elena’s affection and her embraces are remembered more vividly than elements of her personality. What is sometimes unsatisfying about this approach is that Costa’s experience of survival, and of her sibling’s untimely death as a portrait of the artist-survivor, requires these niggling particulars that add layers of meaning. Costa’s stance too often elides them.

It is in Costa’s interviews with her mother, which are at times cleverly edited to resemble conversations, that we arrive at an understanding of the history of depression that defined the filmmaker’s journey to individuation. Her mother speaks of a drawing she completed at 13 years of age which expressed her desire to die; Costa shows either the actual drawing or a rendition of it in the film. That desire lasted through her teenage years. Mrs. Costa also discusses the guilt she continues to feel over Elena’s death, and admits that had they had a car in New York City all those years ago, she might have packed Elena’s dead body in it, along with Costa, and crashed the car, killing herself and her one remaining child.

That shocking revelation comes after scenes of Elena or Costa—the two are purposefully pictured as indistinguishable—performing a dance with a rope that finally ends up encircling the dancer’s body, a profound metaphor for the desperation of mental illness, but also of entrapment and stasis. The rope will either strangle or unravel and fall away, in the last instance holding the promise of rebirth. In the final performance, the dancer remains entangled. Elena is both memoir and cinematic redemption for the eponymous sister and daughter, yet in this dance and in many other instances, the filmmaker signals uncertainty about her own fate. The final images of the movie, of women floating on water, are beautiful, and celebrate Costa’s “passage” to her newfound self, but they never feel transcendent.

Elena is an art-house film, as are many of the movies to which it might be compared. In fact, the perpetual dearth of women filmmakers at prominent film festivals here and abroad, evinced this year for instance at Tribeca and Cannes, consigns their work to limited distribution, making it difficult for critics to place a movie like Elena into a meaningful context for audiences. But let me try: Women’s cinematic quests for identity are singular, as they so often involve reminiscences of a dead relative. Sarah Polley’s work as both an actress and a director provide several excellent examples, especially her recent Stories We Tell (2012) which, like Elena, employs archival footage and reenactments, recalling the life of Polley’s mother who died when she was eleven years old. Fellow Brazilian Carine Adler’s debut narrative film, Under the Skin (1997), about a young woman whose life unravels after her mother’s demise, provides an especially original depiction of the feminine quest. Elena adds another assured and courageous voice.

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