Review by Donna K. – Rooftop Films – 8/19/2013
This feature documentary debut from Brazilian director Petra Costa charts her poetic journey in search of her sister, Elena, whose volatile life moves from their South American home to the gridded brownstones of New York City, fluidly capturing the spirit of loss through home video, tape recordings, beautifully realized artistic interludes, and a deep love of her sibling.
Before embarking on her first stay in New York to pursue her career as a film actress, Elena gives a young Petra a seashell, telling her to listen to it for sounds of the ocean, to communicate with her, to remember her by — an act that Petra takes to heart as an adult when she continues to search for Elena through the echoing sounds she left behind.
Elena, a project supported by the Tribeca Film Institute’s Latin America Media Arts Fund, compiles both found footage in the form of a vast archive of home movies and also material of gorgeously staged scenes of pure artfulness. Yet it is the rich storytelling ability that stitches together these artifacts and imaginations into a strongly unique auto/biography on film, edited with a poise and ease much like the mercurial movements of the dances often performed by the expressive sisters.
The lives of Petra and Elena are most like a forceful current that moves in and out with the moon, drawn into their own personal, emotional undertow as they are confronted with the intensity of life and forced outward by living the lives of others through acting, singing, and play. Do the tides of our hearts continue to push and pull through the blood of others long after we are gone? Is anything ever really lost? The complexity of Elena, both as a person and as a film, delves into waters we rarely ask to tread, an existential journey for not only the lives floating on film but for the audience as well.