By C. Cassady – Video Librarian – 11/28/2014
Filmmaker Petra Costa’s Elena is a strikingly lyrical documentary profile, blending surreal avant-garde scenes with family home movies and low-resolution archival videos. Costa’s narration serves as an open letter read to her ill-fated sister Elena, a rising Brazilian stage actress who made the decision to relocate to New York City for further theatrical studies and serious pursuit of her acting/modeling career. Despite some initial professional excitement (she met Francis Ford Coppola while he was shooting The Godfather: Part III), nothing really developed, and Elena battled seesawing weight and mood swings. Costa and their divorced mother (a onetime leftist political refugee) eventually joined Elena, but the older sister’s emotional decline was irreversible. Late in the film, Costa reveals that a history of suicidal depression runs in the female side of her family, along with a propensity to pursue acting and art as forms of escape/release. Given the mental health history, this might even be considered a type of self-therapy for Elena’s pain-wracked survivors. A visual ode that is the farthest thing from a talking-head, white lab-coat piece, this biographical portrait—presented in a manufacture-on-demand DVD-R version—is recommended.