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Elena of Troy / Elena of New York

By Nicolau Sevcenko – 8/18/2014

sevcenkoOn August 13, Brazilian historian Nicolau Sevcenko died at the age of 61 of a heart attack. Sevcenko was at home in São Paulo when it happened.

A professor at Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and Harvard University, Sevcenko specialised in social and cultural History. He also taught at the London university, where he also got his post-doc from. A descendant of Ucranians, Sevcenko was considered to be a disciple of Sergio Buarque de Hollanda (1902 – 1982), one of Brazil’s most respected scholars responsible for writingRaízes do Brasil. In 1999 Sevcenko, who also worked as a translator and writer, won the Brazilian Jabuti Prize for his bookHistória da vida privada no Brasil. He was also an editor at Folha de S. Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper.

In April 2014, Sevcenko accepted our invitation to participate in a debate about the film Elena at Harvard University along with director Petra Costa and professor Robb Moss. During his opening speech, which we make available for you below, he re-qualifies the Greek myth of Helen of Troy and, using Petra Costa’s film as an example, brings it to present day:

“I think the dreamlike texture of this film and I think of the signal word of the title “Elena” nothing else. A Greek name so resonate of legend and myth “Elena” the one who was abducted. Helena of Troy; Elena of New York; Elena the one who’s missing. Helena the one who’s upset triggers the greatest and most epic of all wars that ever involved human kind. The absence of Elena is the source of so much suffering and tragedy because even if you destroy an entire city and entire culture, an entire civilization…you cannot repossess her lost love. In that sense she is the example of inextricable evanescence of desire. In the film it becomes even more mysterious, since Elena this evanescent mystery, overlaps in three different characters—herself, her sister Petra, and their mother. In many sense and dimensions these three characters get mixed with one another sharing feelings, emotions, affections…there’s such a degree of intimacy that you cannot tell anymore one from the other. So that is the great mystery of Elena the film. Certainly, many more mysteries but perhaps the most outstanding is this…why is that so much sorrow, so much pain, so much desolation can turn out to something so beautiful, so poetic, so inspiring to all of us? Again if we refer to the mythical Helena, we might get some insight.  In fact this word, Helena, in Greek it means exactly that, the torch…the light…so it was the light that was stolen from Greece, the light that was taken from Greece into a different people, a different city, a different culture. That’s what this story is all about. For the Greeks, Helena was mostly a symbol of tragedy. For the romantics in the 19t century, on the other hand…Elena represents the epitome and the synthesis of all of the arts and in that sense she is the very sense of what the war culture stands for. Therefore the mystery, or rather the magic of Elena the film…it’s ability to tempt pathos melancholy into something more sublime more soothing, more reconciliatory. One special thing that unites the three entities that overlap into one another—Elena herself, Petra, and the mother—is this particular sensibility this inner drive that they all have towards the arts…..towards self expression in whatever form of art that they could manage; Basically music and dance, theater, cinema, photography, but also drawing and poetical writing. It is this multi-artistic drive that gives coherence to the entire film from beginning to end. It is an art that in the end fulfills this painful longing we all feel for Elena sending us this dreamlike labyrinth that brings peace, relief, and reconciliation at the end. And in that sense I think the film does plenty of justice to Elena, the afflicted young artist, but also to Helena the myth. What we as the audience shares with the film is our compassion and spiritual, or artistic reunion, with them all, these three silent entities, as well as the mythical one with ourselves…with our ultimate human condition and in that sense I think the film is really a masterpiece in terms of sensibility and the communication of the way by which pain can ultimately be transformed by the magic of art into sublimation, compassion, and great consideration. That’s it. Thank you.”

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