A pained and gorgeous summoning, Petra Costa’s haunted doc Elena dances with death, memory, and family, seducing viewers and then breaking their hearts.
That you know what’s coming doesn’t offer much relief. Costa’s older sister, Elena, an actress and dancer seen in movingly decayed home video clips, lit out for New York from Brazil while Costa was still a child.
In the States, Elena, already a seasoned stage performer back home, fruitlessly tries to break into film. We see the recording of one promising audition: As in the footage of Elena’s dancing in Sao Paulo theaters — flamenco, butoh, and one lulu of a routine where she’s pursued offstage by rolling cable spools — the star that never quite was seems impossibly radiant, someone we can only look at in glimpses.
Glimpses dominate Costa’s absorbing film. Costa was only seven years old when Elena killed herself in New York. Her dreamy narration is addressed to her sister, a gentle interrogation: “You stay home, all day long at home. Doing what? Talking to whom?” Costa assembles scraps of Elena’s life — video of birthdays, years-later footage of the New York she lost herself in, an interview with a man who knew her, her suicide note.
The portrait is unbearably intimate, even with the guesswork. Eventually, tragically, the story turns to the survivors: the mother, still grieving, and Costa, learning to live without her sister’s example.
In her final letter, Elena wrote of her moments onstage, how afterward she felt disappointed, unsatisfied, even diminished: “Moments later, I no longer had their light.” This mesmerizing portrait, flickering on a screen, immortalizes her even as it’s anguished. She’s light, forever.