Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Ryan Gosling To Star In 'Blade Runner 2' Ryan Gosling To Star In 'Blade Runner 2' Watch: New Trailer For 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Flies Into The Galaxy Watch: New Trailer For 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Flies Into The Galaxy Watch: First Teaser Trailer For Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' Watch: First Teaser Trailer For Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' 'Macbeth,' Todd Haynes' 'Carol,' Pixar's 'Inside Out' Lead 2015 Cannes Film Festival Line-Up 'Macbeth,' Todd Haynes' 'Carol,' Pixar's 'Inside Out' Lead 2015 Cannes Film Festival Line-Up Watch: Zack Snyder Teases The Full Trailer For ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice' & Upcoming IMAX Event Watch: Zack Snyder Teases The Full Trailer For ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice' & Upcoming IMAX Event Ryan Gosling & Edgar Wright Talk 'Lost River,' Shooting In Detroit, And Advice For First Time Filmmakers Ryan Gosling & Edgar Wright Talk 'Lost River,' Shooting In Detroit, And Advice For First Time Filmmakers Netflix & Marvel's 'Daredevil': The Pros, The Cons, The Verdict Netflix & Marvel's 'Daredevil': The Pros, The Cons, The Verdict Netflix's 'Daredevil' Is An Awesome Achievement And Marvel's Most Graphic & Grounded Effort To Date Netflix's 'Daredevil' Is An Awesome Achievement And Marvel's Most Graphic & Grounded Effort To Date Watch: Action-Packed Footage In 2 New “Avengers: Age of Ultron’ TV Spots, Plus Watch Interviews With The Entire Cast Watch: Action-Packed Footage In 2 New “Avengers: Age of Ultron’ TV Spots, Plus Watch Interviews With The Entire Cast Watch: Trailer For 'The Great Beauty' Director Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth' Starring Michael Caine & Rachel Weisz Watch: Trailer For 'The Great Beauty' Director Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth' Starring Michael Caine & Rachel Weisz Joss Whedon Says He's Not Making 'Avengers: Infinity War' Because It's "A Young Man’s Game" Joss Whedon Says He's Not Making 'Avengers: Infinity War' Because It's "A Young Man’s Game" Watch: Take 7 Minutes And Learn The History Of Film Editing Watch: Take 7 Minutes And Learn The History Of Film Editing 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron' Called "Amazing" And "More Emotional" With "Insane Action" After First Screening 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron' Called "Amazing" And "More Emotional" With "Insane Action" After First Screening Joss Whedon Calls 'Jurassic World' Clip "70s Era Sexist" Joss Whedon Calls 'Jurassic World' Clip "70s Era Sexist" The 20 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2015 Tribeca Film Festival The 20 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2015 Tribeca Film Festival The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki

Rooftop Films Review: Petra Costa's Documentary 'Elena'

Photo of Katie Walsh By Katie Walsh | The Playlist August 9, 2013 at 2:50PM

How can one describe Petra Costa's film "Elena"? If it's just the facts, one could say that it's a documentary about Costa searching for answers and understanding about her sister Elena, who committed suicide when she was a child. And yes, it is that, but it is also so much more than that. It's a cinematic rendering of a memory; a visualization of a person long gone, made real again through ephemera. It's a journey through one's own darkness, a deeply personal poem of film that manages to also be incredibly humane and universal. This is avant-garde autobiographical filmmaking at its finest, and the results are stunningly beautiful, and achingly emotional within a lyrical and dreamlike aesthetic.
1
Elena

How can one describe Petra Costa's film "Elena"? If it's just the facts, one could say that it's a documentary about Costa searching for answers and understanding about her sister Elena, who committed suicide when she was a child. And yes, it is that, but it is also so much more than that. It's a cinematic rendering of a memory; a visualization of a person long gone, made real again through ephemera. It's a journey through one's own darkness, a deeply personal poem of film that manages to also be incredibly humane and universal. This is avant-garde autobiographical filmmaking at its finest, and the results are stunningly beautiful, and achingly emotional within a lyrical and dreamlike aesthetic. 

Filmmaker John Grierson defined documentary filmmaking as "the creative treatment of actuality," which has come to be the most apt descriptor for the wide range of films about real life and reality. In "Elena," the actuality is both her sister's story and her own, melded together so that the two are often indistinguishable from each other. In the beginning of the film, Costa's voice over says: "my mother always said I could live anywhere in the world, except New York. I could choose any profession, except actress. On September 4th, 2003, I started theater at Columbia University." Those simple sentences evoke so much—both their past trauma and Costa's willingness to fly directly into the sun of that trauma. The syntax and sentence order also reflects the overall storytelling structure of the film, which unfolds almost in a backwards, or circular fashion, starting with where she ended up before going back to tell the story from the beginning. It's a choice that allows her to privilege mood and tone and her continued relationship with Elena over the hard and fast facts, because the lack of her reverberates throughout Costa's life. She strolls the city streets, her face always just out of view of the camera's lens. These human-level cityscapes and intimate voice-over (is Costa talking to Elena as herself or is she reading from Elena's letters? It's often unclear) calls to mind Chris Marker's "Sans Soleil" in its abstraction of and investigation into time, memory and place. 

Elena

The ephemera through which Costa resurrects her older sister is a vast trove of archival home movies and recordings of Elena as a young theater actress in Brazil, where the girls grew up, daughters of Communist activists who became a politician and a journalist. Elena, a pre-teen when Petra is born, is a beautiful young woman instantly smitten with her new baby sister. She dreams of being an actress, and creates little short films and schlocky horror spoofs with the family camcorder. She moves on to the Sao Paulo theater scene, performing avant-garde theater and dance before moving to New York to try her hand at film acting. After a few failed starts, she returns home, but moves back to New York with her mom and sister when she is accepted to theater school there. It is upon her return that the creeping darkness takes over this young woman's life, and Costa captures this with voice over from Elena's writing, her own childhood memories, and gut-wrenching first hand accounts from her mother and Elena's friend Michael. 

But, despite this tragic ending, and its ramifications throughout their lives, Petra finds herself almost becoming Elena, studying theater, moving to New York, desperate to both find answers and understand her sister, but also to bring her life back to life in a way. And it is through this film that she is able to bring her sister back to, at least cinematic, life. However, she remains a specter, a ghost on celluloid, blurred and obscured in her final signature rope dance, whirling and writhing on the screen, caught and trapped within herself. Costa, as a director, has captured Elena, while Petra, as her sister, both dives into and resists becoming her, the film itself serving as the exorcism of her spirit. 

Elena

There's also an apt comparison to be made to Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell," where she uses the cinematic process to recreate and investigate her mother's mysterious life as a way of understanding it. But Costa doesn't seek to recreate Elena rather than conjure her out of what is already there in the archival footage, photos, and memories. The film is bolstered by gorgeous and dreamy photography of Costa on the streets of New York, and culminates in a watery sequence that makes reference to another doomed heroine: Ophelia. The result is a mesmerizing, artful and emotional piece of filmmaking that consistently surprises and awes in its sensitivity and (as Herzog would say) ecstatic truths. [A-]

"Elena" screens in New York as part of Rooftop Films Summer Series on Saturday, August 10th. 

This article is related to: Elena


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates