Review by Frank Scheck – The Hollywood Reporter – 5/29/2014
Petra Costa’s documentary concerns her efforts to come to terms with her older sister’s death.
Few films are as deeply personal as filmmaker Petra Costa’s moving paean to her older sister who committed suicide in 1990, when her sibling was just 7 years old. Dreamlike and fragmentary, Elena deals with issues of loss and memory in sometimes too elliptical and amorphous a fashion, but at its best it conveys the heartbreaking anguish of coming to grips with losing a loved one you never really had the chance to know. Executive produced by Tim Robbins and Fernando Meirelles, the film has become one of the most successful documentaries of all time in its native country.
Elena Costa was a beautiful young Brazilian woman who moved to New York City with dreams of becoming an actress — at one point, we see her audition tape for a small part in The Godfather Part III. She eventually spiraled into a cycle of drugs and depression that led to a suicidal drug overdose. Years later, her sister, Petra, also became an actress and moved to New York. The film represents her mournful quest to come to terms with her long gone sister even while attempting to discover her own identity.
Narrated by the filmmaker, the impressionistic documentary is composed of home movies, audiotaped letters sent by Elena to her family members in Brazil, interviews with her mother and others who knew her, childhood photographs and such chilling elements as excerpts from the coroner’s report detailing the substances she ingested and the weight of her internal organs.
Occasionally, the film strains too hard for poeticism, becoming frustratingly allusive in its deliberate blurring of Elena and her sister’s personas. Much key information is withheld, including key details of the sisters’ upbringing, such as their parents’ divorce and their childhood spent in hiding during the years of the country’s military dictatorship.
At other times, the proceedings are almost unbearably heartbreaking, especially in its depiction of the mother’s despondency over Elena’s death. She comments that if she had owned a car in New York City, she would have put her daughter’s dead body in the trunk and driven it, along with her younger daughter, into the river, killing them both.
Ultimately, it’s what we see as much as what we hear that gives the film its power. Filled with strong visuals, both real and devised — it concludes with ethereal images of women floating on water — Elena is an elegiac cinematic essay that is both haunting and unforgettable.