The Brazilian documentary Elena is both a haunting mediation on mental illness and a rousing testament to the cathartic power of artistic expression. Like a dream that slowly devolves into a nightmare, the shadowy imagery and evocative soundscapes take us deep inside a family fueled by their creative passions. Director Petra Costa bravely tracks the demons that overwhelmed her older sister, Elena, only to find the same darkness lurking inside her. This is a challenging film that demands attention and patience, but rewards us with the unique vision of a fevered artist searching for answers.
Depression is something that movies never seem to get right. Perhaps it’s to avoid dragging viewers into a hopeless abyss, or sidestepping the painful truth that no one is immune to the despair. Whatever the reason, filmmakers invariably choose to glamorize depression, either by exaggerating it into a hallucinatory freak show or diminishing it to tortured brooding. The reality—the unrelenting emptiness—is neither easy to portray nor pleasant to acknowledge. Petra Costa accomplishes both by weaving images and sounds from her childhood into a quasi-mystery story that’s determined to find closure, even if the case can never truly be solved.
Petra begins by using home movies and audio recordings as a survey course through her family’s history. Their mother, an independent spirit with aspirations of becoming an actress, marries a Marxist and helps sow the seeds of political unrest in 1970s South America. She passes this irrepressible flame to her eldest daughter, Elena. For Elena, all the world is a stage; an opportunity to unleash the creative fury burning inside her. Petra becomes her willing protégé and stagehand. Bathtub operas and improvised dance numbers mark their homemade productions, which are staged with Elena’s exacting eye for detail. It’s this artistic ambition that sets Elena’s gaze squarely upon the glittering lights of New York’s theater scene; a stepping stone to film actress glory. Before leaving for New York, Elena warns Petra (on her seventh birthday, no less) that, “Seven is the worst age.” She has no idea how prophetic those words will be.
Petra isn’t particularly interested in telling a linear story. She understands that Elena’s journey into the void—her search for justification and fulfillment—began long before she ventured to New York City and will echo long after she’s gone. Instead, Petra enlists snapshots of Elena’s life — a video passage here, an audio journal there — so that we may all discover her together; not as a case study or a cautionary tale, but as a vital, passionate woman whose only real fault was holding herself to such an unattainable standard.
The arresting visual and auditory styles of Elena manage to be intimate and inaccessible at the same time. Blurry images suddenly snap into focus, while close-up faces dissolve into shadows. It’s a filmmaker trying to give structure to the fluidity of memory, like putting water into a vase. Petra uses the industrial whine of subway trains and taxicabs to contextualize the hazy uncertainty of where her journey might lead. Is this discovery of Elena leading her to enlightenment or oblivion?
Some of the most haunting scenes involve Petra wandering the streets of New York City as she listens to old audio recordings of a teenaged Elena. With the camera always at her back, Petra is like the little sister who can never quite catch up, stalking the footsteps of a big sister whose light both blinds and inspires her. All she can do is press onward, hoping to join her sister for one final dance before the lights dim.
What we’re left with is an intimate portrait of mental illness that rivals anything we’ve seen. There is no glamour here. No circling cameras or philosophizing hipsters. There’s just a longing to understand how such a creative spirit could be so thoroughly vanquished, and the courage to look that ugliness in the eye. Elena implies that the connections between our past and our future are fluid, with the tide just as likely to drown us as to carry us to safety. Perhaps the key to survival is accepting the possibility of both outcomes and making our peace with it. Filmmaker Petra Costa has given us a story of quiet power that resonates with insight and humanity.
— J.R. Kinnard