Elena always knew she was destined to make a big impact on people. Her passion for acting is what led the young Brazilian actress to leave homeland, where she had a promising career in theatre, to pursue a career in film in New York City. Twenty years later Elena’s sister, Petra, is following in her footsteps. An actress and filmmaker, Petra has travelled to New York in search of Elena. As she roams the streets of New York hoping to run into her sister, Petra’s only clues to finding Elena come from old home movies, letters, and newspaper clippings. Despite being a young girl when Elena left, these pieces of information help Petra to piece together a vivid portrait of her sister.
Petra’s quest for answers reveals several similarities that go far beyond the fact that the sisters look eerily similar. As Petra and Elena begin to merge on screen, the power of acting becomes an unlikely source for Petra to find Elena. When Elena is finally found, it opens up the flood gates of pent up emotions that will have a lasting impact on the entire family. For Petra in particular, she must not only find a way to accept Elena’s choice, but also learn to let go of everything that caused her to search in the first place.
Beautiful and poetic, Elena is stunning tribute to both family and the power of art. Petra Costa’s film offers a glimpse into how artistic expression can be used as a tool for both solace and healing. Elena does a fantastic job of showcasing how artistic pursuits help to shape both Elena and Petra, and ultimately unites them on several different levels. Elena knew from the age of four that acting was her calling. She would practice the various facets of her craft, which also included singing and dancing, with rigorous determination. Her passion was imparted onto Petra at an early age.
Elena may have an undercurrent of mystery that flows through a portion of the film, but Petra does not try to play it up for dramatic effect. Instead she does an exceptional job of providing a well-round view of Elena’s life and the excruciating pain she caused her family after going to New York. The audience gets to feel like they know Elena intimately even before the film reaches its climax. This is beneficial in providing an added emotional punch when Petra finally finds what she is looking for.
Considering how important artistic expression is to both Elena and Petra, it should come as no surprise that the film features almost no talking head segments. In fact, outside of Petra and Elena, there are only two other voices in the film. One of those additional voices is Elena’s friend Michael who recounts an important incident when a distraught Elena called on him for help. Michael’s testimony does not hold a candle though to the emotionally powerful revelations that Elena and Petra’s mother provides. She perfectly encapsulates the range of emotions that the family has gone through over the years. Petra even includes her mother in a poignant and artfully done segment in the latter section of the film.
There are certain documentaries where the cinematic experience is just as important as the subject matter. Elena is one of those films as it capture the essence of the human spirit in such a memorable way. Elena is a beautiful and moving film that takes an artful, and understated, approach to examining the emotions that can impact a family.