Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Following in the footsteps of a beloved sister’s life and death

By Nora Lee Mandel

Produced and Directed by Petra Costa
Written by Costa and Carolina Ziskind
Released by Variance Films/Syndicado
Brazil/USA. 82 min. Not Rated
In English and Portuguese with English subtitles

Elena beautifully traces how mental illness and suicide reverberates through a family for years. The U.S. distribution is being presented by Tim Robbins and Fernando Meirelles.

Brazilian director Petra Costa narrates (in English) her memories of her much older sister Elena, going back and forth in time as she discovered a diary, letters, and audio and video tapes, that illustrate the film, back before they were born, their brief life together, and how her own life is drawn to follow her, in her footsteps and as an actress. The symbolism of Ophelia ties in to the repeating images of darkly rippling water and Elena’s audition tape, as a nervous 20 year old in New York, when Petra was seven back in Brazil.

Their family first seems very exotic, before taking the more universal turn. Their parents put aside youthful fantasies of being performers to be Marxist revolutionaries demonstrating against the military dictatorship (seen in archival footage), but were only stopped from joining the guerrillas in 1969 because of her mother’s pregnancy: “You in her belly saved our parents’ lives.” They went into hiding, lying about their identities, but with the 1979 amnesty, they (briefly) became a normal family “like America in the 1950’s”.

Armed now with a video camera, 13-year-old Elena enjoyed posing her baby sister in home movies. But then their parents separated and Elena’s attention turned outside the home to theater, throwing herself into rehearsals and rigorous dance practice, seen on tape. For Petra, “Seven was my worst age”, because her beloved sister, frustrated by limited artistic opportunities at home, left for New York. She sends home audio tapes full of homesickness and the insecurities of a discouraged actress. There are brief reunions, in Brazil and New York, where Elena is excited to be going to college. When Petra approaches the age her sister was at her death, she finds more of her sister’s writings and hours of tapes, and feels they share so much in thoughts and aspirations. (Their photos, images, movements, and words frequently blend on screen.)

In what seems at first like an engaging mystery, Petra follows to Elena’s addresses where her letters were written, and searches for her old friends. In tears, they tell how helpless they felt in the face of her decline into depression. But it turns out this was all known to their mother, who was with her in New York, and still couldn’t prevent the tragedy. The film becomes a cathartic effort to get her mother to open up about what happened and the deeply anguished feelings she’s kept inside all these years. She reveals what it was like to try to supervise Elena’s therapy and lithium, and still watch her child overcome: “She felt empty.” They walk through the mundane aspects after her daughter downed a bottle of aspirin, like dealing with the EMT’s and the medical examiner, and then “the pain of guilt. The pain is unbearable.”

Far away back in Brazil, Petra was a child coping with a death so close to her, trying to understand that her sister died forever and realizing that even her mother could die. Her sister remains 20, and Petra grows up to her age. This child’s perspective is sweetly endearing, and a unique look at how suicide hurts an entire family (and I know friends who have been seared by this.). Though heavily influenced in her debut by the imaginative approach of Agnes Varda’s autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès), Costa’s cinematographically dreamy exploration starts to move into self-indulgence, and comes close to narcissism about being an actress. Her final choreography of a dance to her sister melds both these strengths and weaknesses of the film.

May 31, 2014

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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