By William Brownridge – Toronto Film Scene – 8/7/2014
Elena travels from Brazil, to New York City, to pursue her dream of acting. She leaves behind her family and little sister Petra. As the struggles of life in New York, and the challenges of breaking into the acting world, become more difficult, Elena falls into depression, and takes her own life. Over twenty years later, her sister, Petra, is also trying to become an actress in New York City. Her journey also has another purpose, as Petra tries to connect with the sister she barely knew, retracing some of the same steps that Elena took in the city, and piecing together her short life.
Elena is more art project than documentary film. Weaving together old home movies, audio recordings that Elena sent home, new footage shot by Petra as she moves through New York, and a poetic voiceover from Petra, there’s very little to give this film structure. It’s difficult to tell what footage may have come from Elena, and what Petra is shooting as she recreates some of the moments that Elena spoke of. The film seems to serve more of a purpose for Petra than it will for any audience.
We learn about Elena’s life, and her dedication to her little sister, as well as seeing how hard it has been for Petra to come to terms with her sister’s death. With a hypnotic soundtrack, and a spoken word feeling to Petra’s narration, the film moves quietly and very slowly. Blurred images, artistic poses, and visual representations of Petra’s words make up much of the documentary. This makes the film a beautiful visual journey, but one that may instantly turn some viewers off.
Despite the “art film” quality to the film, it does present a look at mental illness, creating discussion where there is usually very little. Both Elena and Petra struggle with depression, although each are treated slightly differently. Elena’s depression is what leads to her suicide and it is something that isn’t really addressed properly. Once Petra learns what happened to her sister, she begins to struggle with depression as well. The fact that she’s only seven years-old at the time of Elena’s death changes how this is handled. Petra overcomes her illness, while Elena did not, showing just how important dealing openly with depression is. Viewers take this sometimes difficult journey with Petra, listening as one loving sister speaks about losing her friend and family member. Through telling her story to the audience Petra finds acceptance, while also sharing Elena with the world.
Is Elena opening weekend worthy?
Understanding that this is a poetic, visual journey is important. It’s not exactly what we may think of a typical documentary, so a unique experience must be expected or audiences may not find what they’re looking for. The film is sleepy and dreamlike, slowly building its story from start to finish, which may not be a pace for everybody. If an afternoon at the art gallery is something you enjoy, this film is guaranteed to entertain.