Subconsciously every artist bares a part of his or her essence in each work. Fiction tends to be a safer canvas to paint one’s reality via fabricated situations and their characters. Such approach provides a comforting distance. Yet, some still prefer to bleed it all out without covers making use of non-fictional tools.
Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa is searching for an elusive ghost hidden within home movies, voice recordings, and stories that became myths about someone she knew but lost with the passing of time. Her older sister Elena moved to New York to be an actress in her teens, a dream she shared with their mother, and which Petra would later follow. In her profoundly personal documentary, Costa creates an entrancing tapestry of images aiming to reconnect with her beloved sibling even in her absence.
Piecing together the moments they shared is made possible because of their family’s perennial fascination with the moving image. Elena had a camera, and with the help of young Petra they would bring to life childish stories product of their imagination. They were unaware that what they were really doing was documenting their lives. Those snippets of joy would become the foundation for Petra’s cinematic investigation to find her sister within herself.
Elena was an artist. She wanted to act, to dance, to sing, perhaps to help her mother live vicariously through her. She went on many unfruitful auditions, but her passion was underrated - at least for a while. It was impossible for her to envision life away from the stage. But as the failures kept piling up, her spirits weakened leaving her adrift with her self-destructive thoughts as only companions. While in the U.S. she recorded her impressions of everyday life, in her tone one can hear a decaying hope, which gradually leaves behind euphoria for apathy. Even when her family is around, her selective vision only allows her to concentrate on her inability to cope with life.
Exposing her own vulnerability, Petra discusses the mental health disorders that afflicted her and the quest to find her own identity in the shadow of Elena. “You look just like her” people would tell her, at once building a bridge between them and equally alienating their personalities. Through her narration Petra speaks directly to Elena. She tries to get answers from the vivid recordings of her performances and realizes that her silence is the loudest voice. It all moves with the alluring cadence of a love letter written with light.
The use of straightforward interviews is limited. Petras’s interpretation of the images conveys not a message but a powerful emotion. Near the end of the film, water becomes a purifying motif depicted in such ethereal manner it is hard not to be transfixed by it. In a spiritual river overflowing with love both Petra and her mother feel once again close to Elena. Despite refusing to follow conventions, the semi-experimental documentary succeeds at turning such specific family story into a compelling experience.
Charged with melancholic beauty “Elena” is a striking blow to heart that shines with fluid poetry. It deviates from the canons of documentary filmmaking to enter a dreamlike state governed by memories and art in its purest, most emotional form.