By Raleigh Miller – Social Columbus – 6/13/2014
If we were to watch a movie about Petra’s life, Elena may be a small presence. But this film is about that presence. And the result is stunning
ELENA is a somber ode and a visual feast. It wouldn’t be right to say that the film is a dramatization of a poem, or that it is a film set to a poem, or that it is “like a poem” (as I once absurdly heard The Counselor characterized). This film comes as close to being a poem a a film might come. The poem is by Petra Costa, and Elena is Elena Costa, Petra’s older sister.
Elena, we find out, left their Brazilian home to pursue a career as a film actress in New York. At twenty, she committed suicide, for reasons we never fully understand. Petra, the narrator, is forging her own path to become an American actress, and she’s her very much her sister’s sister. Their mother and father were saved from political assassination because their mother was pregnant with Elena. Elena is given some credit for their parents’ survival during political turmoil, and implicitly for Petra’s existence.
Within the context of this striking and unusual documentary, Petra is consumed by a strange but pervasive intimacy with her late sister. The impression one gets is that Petra is a fully realized individual, that she doesn’t live in her sister’s shadow, but that Elena is always in the wings, silently exerting a subtle but pervasive influence over Petra’s self-conception. If we were to watch a movie about Petra’s life, Elena may be a small presence. But this film is about that presence. And the result is stunning. Extensive home video constructs an intimate frame for an otherwise alienating cinematic experience. Though we’re invited to be witness, to travel on the film’s journey, this story exists entirely between Petra and Elena. Some critics have complained about this, as though it makes the dramatic journey too personal, and too effortful of an investment for the distanced spectator. But the film’s thoroughgoing preoccupation with the intimacy that existed between Petra and Elena invites us into a different kind of spectating role. Costa never promises us comprehension. But through a kind of meticulous poetic chaos, a directionless artfulness, she produces a cinematic representation of the felt duality of intimacy and distance that characterized the puzzling relationship between Petra and Elena.
It’s an effortful film to watch, but a beauty to behold.