"Elena, I had a dream about you last night," Petra Costa, the woman who created the ultra-personal tribute to her dead sister that is Elena, says in the first lines of her film. It's a perfectly apt way to introduce a film that's as dreamlike as the very memories we hold of those dearest to us that have passed on, but everything becomes more real as the minutes flow by.
Blending audio and video recordings of her sister, deeply personal interviews with her mother, and entrancing footage of herself retracing the steps of her sister through New York, Costa crafts a touching tribute to the sister whose memory she so desperately longs to keep alive.
The first film that may enter the minds of many who are familiar with modern documentaries when reading that description is Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell, which shares a lot of stylistic relation with Elena. It's easy to argue that Costa has a firmer grasp on exactly the kind of somber mood she wants her film to instill in its audience. This isn't to say that she isn't occasionally self-indulgent to a fault; some close-ups of herself and strangers making the film come off more unpolished and aimless than it really is. At 80 minutes, though, it's a work that's tough to grow tired of, although the same qualities it possesses that appeal to some will undoubtedly frustrate others. Regardless, it's a documentary that shows a level of audiovisual understanding to establish a wistful atmosphere that is hard to find in an up-and-coming director.
Sound plays a massive role in Elena, with Costa's own narration being the primary form of plot progression, if one can even describe it as such. Musical accompaniment works both ways in the film, with Vitor Araujo's brilliant recurring piece of music, "Valsa Pra Lua," accompanying some of the most poignant scenes, while the Mamas and the Papas' "Dedicated to the One I Love" coming off almost too on-the-nose, despite its sweet sentiment.
But it's the scenes that utilize silence and simple narration that prove its best. Fictionalized portraits of depression so rarely capture the pain that those who live with it suffer through, and much less that of those who are left to mourn. By placing a heart-wrenching reading of her sister's suicide note, along with photographs of the autopsy report, the filmmaker delivers some of the film's harshest blows.
But Costa isn't solely dedicated to telling the story of her sister's depression and death. In great part, Elena is a work of self-exploration and how fulfilling it can be to make the most abstract memories concrete.
"Memories go with time, they fade," the film says. "But some find no solace, just bits of relief in the small openings of poetry. You are my inconsolable memory made of shadow and stone. And it is from this that all is born and dances." It's the bits of dialogue like this that resonate deeply with the message that Petra Costa is getting across. Elena is not solely the sister she lost, she is an essential piece of the woman that Costa has become. Even with the pain that comes with loss, she's grateful for the moments she had with her sister. In many ways, Elena is as much a letter of thanks as it is a love letter to a woman she misses.
Elena will be playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Monday, August 18th, at 7 p.m. as part of the 18th Brazilian Film Festival of Miami. Tickets cost $11, with discounts for members, seniors, and students. Visit mbcinema.com or brazilianfilmfestival.com.
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