“As Dores Viram Agua”
By Craig Foster – SpanPort – University of Minessota – 3/24/2014
Acclaimed Brazilian director Petra Costa previewed her first feature-length film, Elena, to students, professors and visitors at the University of Minnesota on Monday, March 24. The most-watched documentary in Brazil of 2013, the film pulled attendees into a streaming current of reminisces in the director’s search for her sister, the titular Elena, twenty years after they last saw each other.
Elena moved to New York City from Minas Gerais, Brazil when Petra was just seven years old. After early success starring in stage performance with the theater group Boi Voador, Elena saw what little opportunity remained in Brazil quickly disappearing under the strict austerity measures of then-president Fernando Collor. Disappointed with her prospects at home, New York presented Elena with a thriving arts culture to study and prepare to enter the film industry.
Before she left, Elena presented Petra with a gift for her 7th birthday, a conch shell. She instructed her little sister that whenever she needed to talk, to put this conch shell to her ear. Elena would have one in New York, ready to talk with Petra across the vast ocean that separated them. After she was gone, Elena left boxes filled with Super 8, VHS and audio cassettes, found by Petra after more than a decade, who found herself once again with a shell to fill with the voice of her sister.
Adeptly mixing archival footage with voice-overs and newly staged scenes, Costa brings the viewer into her journey to piece together the events that happened during that year in New York. “My mother always said that I could live anywhere in the world,” Petra tells the audience early in the film “except for New York. She said I could choose any profession, except an actress.” Yet with her mother’s advice in mind, Petra followed exactly the path she was warned against. She moved to New York in 2004, and even before she began to search in earnest for Elena, Petra already found herself in her sister’s shoes.
Costa’s film runs deep with symbolism and touches on a range of topics, from Brazilian political history, to the tension of trying to make it in film and theater, to the ways people live in relation to characters of popular stories. But where the film really shines is in the way it struggles with and submerges itself in the relationships between three women, Petra, Elena and their mother. This is where it touches on the sublime, meeting anyone weary of documentary cinema head on and reclaiming the story as a meditation on family, sadness, and delayed expectations.
Elena was born fourteen years before Petra, and the tumultuous years in Brazil between their births separated them by more than just age. Elena is a film about the struggles in each of the women’s lives separated by generations. For their mother, it is a struggle to turn her once revolutionary spirit toward raising a family, for Elena it’s the attempt to make it as a New York film actress, and for Petra it is to make sense of their paths as she takes her own. Finding her reflection throughout the film as she walks, stands and sits in the windows of New York, these fleeting, diffracted and transparent images of herself present for Costa a manner of understanding the echos of her mother and sister in her own self. There are traces of them within her own image, yet the city distorts them and they disappear if she looks too close.
Mixing her own imagined and remembered conversations with the audio diaries and letters on tape that her sister made and sent to the family in Brazil, Costa creates an aural landscape not dissimilar to the sights of New York that she includes in the film. The city is inescapable in the film, and viewers are sure to recognize landmarks and milieu. But Elena is a far cry from a city symphony film, focusing instead on three specific inhabitants thereof. Every establishing shot is a blurred, obscured medium shot where one would expect a crisp, clear and triumphant long shot. Costa lets the city visually snare its characters and forces us as an audience to look inward to the personal and emotional weight of resistance to the overlarge and restricting New York.
The stage, an intimate room in the middle of this big city, is where Elena attempts to rise above this New York of crowded streets of anonymous faces. Costa pieces together family videos to show us that her sister was fascinated with starring roles from a very young age, even in front of the home camcorder with a living room for her stage. Yet Elena leaves these salas of Brazil and goes to New York with dreams of being a Real Actress. She had found initial success in Brazilian stage theater, with the experimental group Boi Voador, but desired an ever larger roll. Elena enrolls in acting and dancing classes in New York, and goes on casting calls. She meets Francis Ford Coppola, and he offers her a part as an extra in his own, quite different movie about generations of a family, Godfather III. She leaves encouraged from other meetings with casting directors. One of her audition tapes has been tracked down by Costa and included in the film, and we can see a delighted Elena eager to dive into the industry. The city changes, for a few minutes bursts with life. Costa shows us Elena dancing in the open park space under a bright sky.
But Elena receives no callbacks. The silence feels like unbearable rejection, and Elena withdraws from the city and the stage. Petra and her mother have meanwhile moved to New York to help a struggling Elena, to give her the support a family can provide. Costa leads us through her mother’s eyes and the eyes of her own childhood to the delicate balance between supporting your children and letting them develop their own personhood, between looking up to your sister for guidance and the dawning realization she won’t always be available to give it.
And one day the broken reflections disappear. The small lengths of magnetic tape stop recording. Elena sits at a word processor to type her suicide note. She has washed down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of cachaça. Costa handles this climax in the film with the deft hand of a director in their prime. For her first feature-length film it is a remarkable accomplishment of narrative in the face of sharing with an audience one of the most intimate moments in her life, in the life of her mother, and in the life of her sister Elena.
In the aftermath of her sister’s death, the film refocuses itself on Petra’s adolescence. As she follows in her sisters footsteps, Costa realizes that she can make them her own. The stories that once seemed restricting leave loose ends that she can arrange; The Little Mermaid who left the sea at the expense of her voice and fins can return to the water as an Ophelia who understands the price paid. Costa puts her sister’s story on the stage, and fortunately for us she uses her stage performance as a place to jump off into this exhilarating film. As we watch a scene of multiple women floating across the screen, a multitude of Ophelias, Costa shows us that we need not always give up under the weight of our history. If we instead give into the world that surrounds us we can transform our small piece of it into art, floating on. With this film she has reconfigured the camcorder follies of her and her sister’s youths into an emotionally charged history of her family, inviting viewers to turn their own pains into water, to cleanse and find life anew.