Review by Dennis Kriz – Fr. Dennis at the movies – 4/16/2014
Why did Elena do it? Isn’t that ever the question? Petra had been only seven at the time. What she remembered of her older sister was what a seven year old would remember plus pictures, film clips, and even voice recordings of her, as Elena, self-conscious about her “bad” handwriting would often send audio cassette tapes in lieu of letters back home to her family.
It’s clear that Elena had a depressive personality. Artists of all types are also notoriously moody. New York, the home of the United States’ “serious artists” is arguably chock full of them. Recent films about tortured artists in New York include Black Swan  (for which Natalie Portman won an Oscar), A Late Quartet  (which costarred the brilliant and tortured in life Philip Seymour Hoffman, who recently died of a drug overdose) and Frances Ha  (which starred the ever-smiling even if her characters face sooo much failure and pain, Greta Gerwig).
Further, this is an quintessentially Brazilian story, where family history already carries with it a great deal of suffering/pain. Though born out in the provinces in “Mines Gerais” Elena and Petra’s mother had already been in her youth an aspiring artist. She then married dashing young man who had come back from studies in the United States a convinced Leftist and Che Guevara supporter. Together they had joined the Brazilian Communist Party and IF NOT FOR HER MOTHER BEING PREGNANT WITH ELENA WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY JOINED THE EMERGING “BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST INSURGENCY” OF THE 1960s FORMING ON THE BORDER WITH URUGUAY WHERE THEY WOULD HAVE ALMOST CERTAINLY BEEN KILLED. Instead, the Communist leadership had convinced them “guerrilla warfare” was NOT good for a young couple with a child and convinced them that they could play “a different role” away from the fighting. ALMOST ALL THEIR FRIENDS WHO JOINED THE BRAZILIAN COMMUNIST GUERRILLA FIGHTERS HAD BEEN KILLED OR EXECUTED IN THE YEARS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING ELENA’S BIRTH. The irony, of course, that Petra and her parents ALL owe their lives to ELENA who grew up to kill herself is again just heart-rending.
Then from what I’ve experienced of Brazilian families (my religious order, the Servites, has a significant presence in Brazil), distance especially for young women, from their families is REALLY, REALLY HARD. So even though Elena initially went ENTHUSIASTICALLY to New York to study performance arts (acting and dance), and even made some connections — she apparently reported back home that she met people like Francis Ford Copolla — soon she found herself deathly homesick, quit everything and went home to Brazil.
So what did the family do? Again, something IMHO quintessentially (if they have the means) Brazilian: both mom and younger daughter Petra accompanied Elena back to New York to LIVE THERE WITH HER TO SUPPORT HER so that she’d complete her studies.
Of course, Elena was a mess. And despite a family that loved her and clearly wanted to support her, she spiraled inward and eventually took a bottle of pills and killed herself.
What could have been done? Elena had apparently gone to get help. She was on lithium in the months before she died. This was apparently just before Prosac and similar anti-depressant drugs had come-out.
She was above all a very sensitive person, an artist type in a family with both perhaps predispositions toward sadness/depression and then a family history (the friends around the parents who were all killed) with much to feel sadness / depression about.
So how does the director tell the story of Elena’s life and her death. Beautifully. She interviews people who knew her as a friend and as a student. She uses those audiotapes of her reports back home. She uses old 8-mm and Super-8 movie clips of her when she was young and then performing at school in New York. She also uses the metaphor of water (see the poster) showing Elena as simply feeling overwhelmed.
Does the film glorify her suicide? It’s a question to ask. I’d say emphatically no. If anything, the film so clearly expresses the sadness of the family that lost her, misses her and has experienced her suicide as a very big hole left by her in their lives. They do go on, but they wonder why (she did it) and wish (for both her and their sake) that she was still with them. No it’s not a glorification of suicide at all. The film just shows it to be a big, sad hole, for everyone it touched.