Elena (2012) **** Visions du Reel 2020

April 23rd, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Petra Costa; Doc with Li An, Elena Andrade, Petra Costa; Brazil/USA 2012, 80 min.

Brazilian director/co-writer Petra Costa’s debut documentary is a melancholic portrait of bereavement for her much younger depressive sister Elena who became a successful actor in New York in the late 1980s.

Mental illness is often a taboo subject for film makers – Kathy Leichter’s Here one Day being one of the exceptions. Petra Costa’s multi-layered study is as painful for the audience as the director. When Elena left her native Sao Paulo, then New York, at the age of seventeen, she left behind a younger sister who was fascinated by Elena, who filmed her with a cam-recorder. The sisters’ parents were revolutionaries, fighting the military dictatorship – but avoiding taking up arms, due to Li An’s pregnancy with her soon to be born daughter Elena. But divorce was to follow, and Li An took Petra to New York where she tried in vain to fight Elena’s depression: “If I’d had a car in New York, I would have put Elena’s body in the boot, put Petra on the seat next to me and driven into the river.” Somehow, this image has found its way into the documentary, with girls floating Ophelia-like in the water weeds.

Super 8 mm portraits of the city and audio tapes of Elena transmit these feelings of homesickness back home to her mother, creating an atmosphere of doom. No wonder Li An told her youngest daughter “never live in New York or become an actor”. Needless to say, Petra studied Drama at Columbia, asking friends of her late sister about details of her demise. It turns out Elena was not alone – but she felt that way. 

We watch her audition tape for a part in Godfather III, listen to the sober voice of the pathologist, enumerating the substances found and the weight of Elena’s organs. Petra talks to her dead sister, they are very much look-alikes: “You are being re-born a bit for me.” And at the beginning of the feature: “I perform your death, I find air to be able to live”. Watery images fill the frame in a dreamlike, poetic narrative suffused with mournfulness: “Little by little, the pain becomes water and then memory, and gradually fades away. But some find solace in the small openings of poetry. You are my inconsolable memory, made of shadow and stone”.

DoPs Janice D’Avila, Will Etchebehere and Miguel Vassy create ethereal images of floating flowers and leaves, the director distilling the essence of her sister into dreamy evocations of feminine beauty and gentleness. There are shades of Agnes Varda, and Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. But mainly a deep sisterly longing for her lost, and very much missed, sibling. AS




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