J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Elena: Sister Remembers Sister

The timing is eerie, yet perhaps providential. It is hard not to be reminded of the recent death of Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjellou when walking into Petra Costa’s cinematic elegy to her older sister, who tragically took her own life in 1990. While Bendjellou’s recent success makes his death is particularly shocking to outsiders, Costa’s sister and mother were to some extent consciously battling the darker forces within her psyche. Nobody can ever really understand what happens in someone else’s head, but Petra Costa will try nonetheless throughout her impressionistic documentary, Elena (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

As the daughter of leftist revolutionaries, Elena Costa’s early years were rootless and secretive. Perhaps coming to New York City to pursue an acting career represented a form of rebellion against her rebellious parents. Unfortunately, despite the support of her family and new friends in the City, Costa was not able to make it here. Eventually, Costa’s mother and her younger sister joined her in New York, but they were not able to dispel whatever ghosts haunted her.

Clearly, none of the Costas have finished processing their grief. Yet, Petra Costa follows in her sister’s footsteps, returning to New York to study acting. Of course, she is highly attuned to the parallels between their lives. Indeed, she is almost obsessed with them.

Essentially, Elena can be divided into two nearly equal segments. Throughout the first half, Costa tries to recreate her sister through the audition videos, home movies, and audio tapes sent home in lieu of letters. It is quite remarkable how well documented her tragically short life was, at a time when cell phones had yet to become a ubiquitous presence in daily life (and might have facilitated communication at vital junctures had they been available). It is a deeply compelling expression of guilt and mourning.

However, Elena the film loses some of it power, as well as a measure of its visual luster, when it segues into an examination of the filmmaker’s personal sense of bereavement. Although viewers are supposed to get metaphorically lost in the distinction between the sisters, it never really happens on a practical level.

For the most part, Elena is quite a carefully composed film. It also has an important de-stigmatizing message regarding the perils of depression, particularly for those with artistic sensibilities. Earnest and unexpectedly ambitious, Elena should not be dismissed as navel-gazing, but it remains undeniably uneven. Recommended for those who appreciate deeply personal cinema, Elena opens this Friday (5/30) in New York at the IFC Center.

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