The tale at the heart of this documentary is simple and not uncommon. A young woman goes to New York to become a star, and instead finds an unhappy ending. This was the story of Elena Andrade, adored older sister of the director of this poetic and very personal film debut. The narrative of her disappearance, first from Brazil and then from life, is so close to Petra Costa that she can find its threads simply by looking inward. Elena is at once a portrait, an autobiography and a history of family trauma.
Most of the film is addressed to the vanished sibling, who left Brazil in 1990 to study theatre and dance in New York. Costa had been speaking silently to her dead sister for a decade before she went to New York to visit the scenes of the disaster. Her gentle monotone voiceover feels at times like an obsessive mental track made audible. It’s also partly a speech into a mirror. The sisters look alike and approach life with similar intensity. Costa revels in the similarities, which may owe something to emulation.
Survivor guilt is a huge theme, both for Costa and her mother. In the opening scene, as Costa’s taxi drives through a darkened New York, she recounts a dream in which she and not Elena is the one who dies. Mother and daughter act out their baffling survivor-hood on the streets of the city, going to the walk-up apartment where they and Elena lived.
Documentary is often a search for causes and explanations, and there is some of that in Elena. Elena’s letters and diaries show her swinging between optimistic hyperactivity and despondency; after her first return to Brazil, she is treated with lithium. Costa and her mother both describe their own experiences of depression, but the filmmaker doesn’t pursue the genetic clue. She doesn’t probe the full meaning of Elena’s diary comment: “I’ll degrade myself and go down this drain.” Nor, with one exception, does Costa interview anyone outside the family who knew her sister, in Brazil or New York. A streak of fatalism runs through her narration and monologue, as if the tragedy happened mainly because it was destined to do so.
Costa is less concerned with specific causes than with effects – with what happened to Elena’s mind and body when her dream failed to come true, and to the family during her decline and after her death. The consequences aren’t entirely dark. Costa also finds pleasure in communing with her sister, in finding her in home movies (too often, perhaps) and seeing her traces in the mirror. This film is an elegy, but it’s also a sign that the link between the sisters is unbroken, and that in death they were not divided. The final images celebrate a vision of sisterhood that also encompasses surrender and extinction – all the themes of the film merged into one visual metaphor.