Floating women, like a sea of Ophelias, provide the punctuating image of Petra Costa's "Elena," a documentary that suggests a strand of opalescent memories strung on a thread of grief. Shot like a dream, spoken like an elegy, it takes nonfiction where it seldom wants to go – away from the comforting embrace of fact and into a realm of expressionistic possibility.
That does not necessarily make it a masterwork — although "Elena" happens to be that — but it certainly puts a viewer off balance. And being slightly askew is a good way to watch it.
"Elena" is not a mystery, which seems to be the sales pitch -- and presumably was in Brazil, where it has become one of that country's more successful nonfiction films. The tones, and tense, leave little doubt about the fate of the title character. From the opening moments, with the lights of Manhattan traffic dissolving into a moist riot of halos, the whole world indistinct and fleeting, the film focuses on Costa's spiritual search for the sister who left her via pills and cachaca, and whom she addresses with no minor dose of recrimination, poetry, or visual virtuosity.
Her sister Elena was born to their revolutionary Marxist parents during Brazil's military junta (1964-85), which forced them to keep themselves and their child in hiding for the first years of her life. Apparently, the girl thrived on drama: A born actress, Elena was a beauty who hungered for dance, and the stage, and the film career her mother also wanted but never had. That she was changed by the presence of a camera is a curious aspect of a curious life, one of many Costa confronts then leaves alone. As someone, presumably Costa herself, notes during the generous amount of home-movie footage that helps make up the film, "I wish I could film you without you knowing …You're not as natural when the camera's on." The natural Elena moved like music, as the viewer gets to see in a rare candid moment.
This is one of many, many offhanded clues to Elena's character that director Costa includes, while at the same time never imposing too much fact or speculation on a movie based in pure feeling. But the clues do raise questions which, like Costa's smeary street lights, hang like Christmas ornaments. Was Elena too self-conscious to be an actress, or too delicate to be one in the real world? Was the separation of her parents when she was 15 – at which time she stopped using a film camera at all – something she never got over? Was the binge eating she refers to -- in the letters home she recorded, rather than wrote, being too embarrassed by her penmanship -- a personal response to professional rejection? Was her loss of 10 pounds in seven days a symptom of bulimia? For all its imagistic lyricism, "Elena" is on a course so headlong it cannot stop for facts.
But it is also not a story in any conventional sense. In fact, when it makes any gesture toward the conventional, it goes off the rails. The inclusion of a straightforward interview with Elena's last boyfriend about the last night of her life (by this time, it should be pretty clear she killed herself) is jarringly, almost embarrassingly, journalistic. It is one of the few times Costa digs at the dreamscape of her movie for any hard information. The only other "witness" confronted by the camera is their mother, whose ravaging grief is a world onto itself.
Time and identity are fluid in "Elena"; there are moments when Costa allows her life and her sister's to meld; the New York setting, which takes place alternately then and now and via Costa’s non-native eye, is looked at with fresh perspective.
In this, her first feature-length film, Costa displays an instinct for both negative space and the suggestive powers of a picture: There are few moments in her film that don't suggest that what is within the frame isn't just as limiting as it is revealing, and that Elena's life was similarly constrained by unfulfilled ambition and clinical depression. Like the storytelling, Costa's visual techniques – putting the perimeter of the image out of focus, for instance, or close-cropping the archival material she has, making us subconsciously resist the limits of what she shows us – induce a certain kind of claustrophobia.
But they are also narratively effective; Elena's story, after all, was one about life closing in. Costa may not be detail-oriented when it comes to the minutiae of her sister’s biography, but when it comes to creating emotional portraiture, she's exhaustive.
"Elena" opens in New York on Friday ahead of a national expansion in June.