Down Came a Blackbird
|Keywords||Communication, Empathy, Freedom, Grief, Human Worth, Loneliness, Memory, Mental Illness, Narrative as Method, Pain, Power Relations, Psychotherapy, Rape, Society, Suffering, Survival, Trauma|
Helen McNulty (Laura Dern) is a reporter. She and her photographer boyfriend, Jan, are on assignment in an unnamed Central American country when they witness militia shooting at protesters. They are both arrested/abducted.
The story picks up a year later. Helen is back in the United States, working on a story about Dr. Anna Lenke (Vanessa Redgrave), a psychiatrist who runs a clinic for survivors of torture. Dr. Lenke herself was raped and tortured at Auschwitz. Helen interviews her, and goes to stay at the clinic to work on her story. Anna recognizes at once that Helen, too, has been tortured.
Helen gradually comes to acknowledge what happened to her. The process culminates in her narrating, and our seeing in flashback, her torture and the murder of her boyfriend. Helen’s recovery is intertwined with and complicated by the story of Tomas Ramirez (Raul Julia), who also identifies himself as a survivor of torture and is at the clinic not only for therapy but because he is in hiding. Helen and Thomas become friends, then lovers, and he is instrumental in her recovery.
As a journalist, though, Helen delves into Thomas’s background and learns that he was not a victim but a perpetrator of torture. Helen turns him over to the authorities and he is arrested. Dr. Lenke’s last words about Tomas, that only once he has confessed can he again be human, rings hollowly: he has already confessed, to her and the other torture survivors at the clinic, and no court of law can present a harsher judge.
A thought-provoking story about denial, concealment, confession: about the telling of stories. Helen at first diminishes the significance of her trauma, although she is shown to be depressed and dependent on sleeping pills and other drugs. Working at the clinic as an undercover journalist, she nonetheless becomes a patient. In retelling the story of her ordeal she is, the film suggests, healed. To this extent, Dr. Lenke’s philosophy of narrative healing is secure and convincing. Tomas’s experience makes things more ambiguous, however, and it is hard to tell quite how much of what is disconcerting about the film’s ending is deliberate. Perhaps it does not matter.
Tomas is as much a "survivor of torture" as the others, and although as perpetrator he is not allowed the other characters’ forgiveness, he certainly earns the audience’s sympathy. (This may also have to do with the actor: Raul Julia died of cancer three days after filming ended, and his jaundiced emaciation creates a fascinating and unsettling subtext, especially in the scene where he confesses his own, active experience of torture, which ends with Helen throwing a pot of boiling water in his face.)
This film, in spite of, and in places because of, its imperfections, offers rich material for the discussion of the relationship between pain and silence, victimhood and responsibility, and narrating and healing. For another film dealing with similar themes, see Death and the Maiden, annotated in this data base.
|Leading Actors||Laura Dern, Raul Julia, Vanessa Redgrave|
|Running Time||112 minutes|
|Video Source||Republic Entertainment|
|Miscellaneous||Released on Showtime cable TV channel.|
|Annotated by||Belling, Catherine|
|Date of Entry||04/24/02|