Review by Opal H. Bennett – Limite Magazine – 6/6/2014
“You are my inconsolable memory – made of shadow and stone.” – Excerpt from “Elena.”
Brazilian director Petra Costa crafts an intensely evocative and visually poetic film with her first feature, “Elena.” Costa displays a masterful ability to create a film experience where her personal memories are made palpable and shared in such a way to be perceived as one’s own. I finished “Elena” with an understanding of her story gained through having “experienced” it rather than just simply watching it. This outstanding film stands next to the avant garde crop of recent documentaries that are helping to redefine the bounds of the genre.
“Elena” tells the story of Petra Costa’s journey of self-discovery through revisiting a difficult time in her family’s history: the suicide of her 20-year-old sister, Elena. Elena Costa was a talented actress and dancer who left Brazil for New York at 19 to pursue her dreams in the performing arts. One year later, suffering from persistent mental illness, she took her own life in her family’s Brooklyn brownstone. Petra was 7.
As Petra recounts in the film’s opening, as a child her mother told her she could do anything she wanted to do, except act; and she could live anywhere she wanted to live, except New York (the Costa’s returned to Brazil at some point after Elena’s suicide). Naturally, teenaged Petra decided to move to New York to study acting, but once she turned 21, older than Elena ever was, she felt it safe to try to understand her sister who, while gone, had loomed large in her memories.
Piecing together extensive home videos of baby Petra with young Elena, interviews with their mom and Elena’s friend, and sequences that are best described as performed memories, Costa at once recreates and investigates Elena’s life. In doing so, her sister is resurrected on-screen; brought life through the memories of those who loved her most. But this reborn Elena remains elusive…an ephemeral spirit intertwined with her sister Petra’s spirit; their shared artistry calling to Petra in ways both inspirational and terrifying.