Review: Petra Costa retraces her troubled sister’s path in ‘Elena’

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“Elena” is a plunge into “inconsolable memory,” a phrase that director Petra Costa borrows from the 1959 film “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Like that landmark Alain Resnais film, Costa’s documentary is lyrical, not linear. In telling of her older sister, an actress and dancer who killed herself in 1990 at age 20, Costa weaves together impressionistic imagery and her own narration, her voice stirring in its musicality and barely veiled longing.

The result is a type of cinematic performance art, with all the self-consciousness that suggests — a sibling love story that’s no less heartfelt for being in the form of a first-person poem.

Elena left behind a treasure-trove of autobiographical material, including the audio letters she sent to her family in Brazil when she was newly arrived in New York, determined to become a movie actress and amazed at the possibilities the city offered. Eventually that expansiveness — so bright and tender in a casting-agency interview video — gave way to doubt. For Elena it was “art or nothing,” a stance compounded by the mental illness that would engulf her.


Conducting a search that’s both metaphoric and gumshoe-specific, Costa retraces her sister’s steps, sometimes accompanied by their mother, who speaks openly of her pain and guilt. The filmmaker combines archival footage, fresh digital material and scenes shot to look old, using vintage film stock. Such a hybrid approach can be problematic in documentaries of a more journalistic bent. But in this existential mystery, the blurring of old and new is enriching, a form of personal mythmaking.

The myth could have been more tightly structured; repetition takes hold in the second half. Then Costa gathers her poetic energies in a lovely final gesture, turning the inconsolable into the sublime.



MPAA rating: None; in English and Portuguese with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.

Playing: At Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles.