Film Review – Elena



Elena (2012) starts off one way, but ends in another. At first, we are led to believe that it is about a young woman from Brazil, who travels to New York City with dreams of becoming an actress. But it quickly turns into the story of the film’s writer/director, Petra Costa, the sister of the titular character. Now, all great filmmakers put a part of themselves into their work, but here we have a case of someone focusing so much on themselves that they risk descending into self-indulgence. The material is insular to the point where it blocks the viewer from connecting with any type of empathy. The person most emotionally impacted here is – by all likelihood – the filmmaker herself.

Clearly, Costa is deeply affected by the story here, since it is partly her own. She lived through the events shown, and we can sense how much that has played in molding her into the person she is today. But her choices in executing her ideas leaves a cold, detached feeling. She is good at creating beautiful visuals and maintaining a consistent tone. But the impression made is purely on an aesthetic level. In fact, whenever she chose to go with allegory or surrealism is when I felt the most removed from the film, because it felt forced and overly staged. The abundant use of water is one of many examples. She often has herself, someone else, or even a group of people floating in water. While visually appealing, it does not come off naturally within the flow of the narrative.

Elena Movie Still 1

The documentary/biography works best when Costa delves into her past, using old home movies, family photographs, and personal testimony to tell the story of her sister, Elena Andrade. Growing up in Brazil, Elena was the big sister (and sometimes mother figure) to Costa. But Elena had a desire to be in the movies, as videos show her acting out scenes she made up. Following in the footsteps of their mother – who once shared the same ambition – Elena traveled to New York. Using voiceover narration, Costa addresses Elena directly, sharing her thoughts over Elena’s decision to move, and the effect it had on their family. In correlation, Costa uses audio recordings Elena sent back as a means to get inside of her mindset.

Soon though, the messages and recordings come less frequently. We assume that the film will delve into Elena’s disappearance, with Costa attempting to find her and reconcile, but no. Rather, the camera turns to Costa herself, and how the tragedy of what happens to Elena plays a role in Costa’s decision to travel to New York as well, and study to become a performer and filmmaker. It’s at this point where my engagement started to waver. It seems Costa uses this platform to speak to Elena and work out own her emotional hang-ups and neurosis. We often see her walking around the streets, lit perfectly by streetlamps. Sometimes she’ll be in a car looking out the windshield, with the lights flickering past her face. These sequences felt the least convincing. Where the home videos showed two people relating to each other organically (because they were real), the scenes of a grown up Costa are artificial. How did she direct these scenes? Did she walk down the street a certain way because she knew she was being filmed? Are these moments of her being herself, or is she putting on a performance to get a particular reaction from the audience?

Elena Movie Still 2

Close ups. Costa loves close ups. Nearly every shot is a close up. Interviews, props, environments, etc., are all captured too closely too often. Even the home video footage appeared in close up. After a while, a claustrophobic sensation started to creep in, because we are never given an opportunity to step back and breathe. Combined with the unnatural way Costa decides to shoot herself, and we have something approaching performance art instead of a deep examination of these two people. In a scene near the end, we watch Costa in what appears to be her bedroom. We get close ups of her hands reaching out toward her window, and then we see her caressing her face. The metaphor is not subtle; in fact it approaches being overly blatant. Elena and Petra shared a very deep sisterly bond, and Costa uses the film as a means to bring closure between them. But we aren’t tied in because Costa decides to sprinkle in clichéd, “artsy” imagery to tell it.

Watching Elena is like eavesdropping on two people having a very deep and personal conversation, but not knowing exactly what they’re talking about or who they even are. Yes, Petra Costa has deep longing and emotional value invested here, there is no denying that. She has clear skill in creating haunting atmosphere in telling her and Elena’s story. But this is a journey that Costa takes on her own, while we’re relegated to the back to watch from a distance.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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