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Down Came a Blackbird

Set in an unnamed Central American country, pic boasts a rather exciting beginning. Adventurous Yank journalist Helen McNulty (Dern) and her photographer b.f. Jan (Jay O. Sanders) are assigned to contact a rebel leader. Stumbling upon a protest demonstration, which is violently suppressed by the secret police, the couple manages to snap some photos. But soon after they are arrested and whisked away to unknown, separate prisons. Cut to Portland, where a year later Helen still mourns her lover's death, though it's also clear that, determined to get on with her life, she has buried her past deep inside her. At a symposium for survivors of political torture, Helen finds herself attracted to Anna Lenke (Redgrave), the keynote speaker who's a Holocaust survivor. Helen agrees to write a feature about a clinic that Anna is running, but once at the center, she's treated by Anna as a victim in need of therapy rather than as a journalist.

Set in an unnamed Central American country, pic boasts a rather exciting beginning. Adventurous Yank journalist Helen McNulty (Dern) and her photographer b.f. Jan (Jay O. Sanders) are assigned to contact a rebel leader. Stumbling upon a protest demonstration, which is violently suppressed by the secret police, the couple manages to snap some photos. But soon after they are arrested and whisked away to unknown, separate prisons. Cut to Portland, where a year later Helen still mourns her lover’s death, though it’s also clear that, determined to get on with her life, she has buried her past deep inside her. At a symposium for survivors of political torture, Helen finds herself attracted to Anna Lenke (Redgrave), the keynote speaker who’s a Holocaust survivor. Helen agrees to write a feature about a clinic that Anna is running, but once at the center, she’s treated by Anna as a victim in need of therapy rather than as a journalist.

Unfortunately, once the core conflict is established, the film sinks into a predictable telefilm format.

Some dramatic tension prevails upon the arrival of Tomas Ramirez (Raul Julia) at the clinic. He’s presented as a history professor, but there’s suspicion over his identity. A rather implausible romantic attachment evolves between him and Helen, until revelations about his past result in some hysterical outbursts.

Writer Kevin Droney’s basic parameters are barely a cut above conventional TV-pic fare. Sanger’s plodding direction, which gives the piece an obvious texture, makes things worse.

Still, pic offers some rewards. Redgrave is such an accomplished pro that she effortlessly achieves maximum effectiveness with minimalist acting. Dern also excels, though the central monologue, in which she recounts her torture in flashbacks, is overblown and disjointed.

Film is dedicated to the memory of Raul Julia, who died six days after principal shooting was finished.

Down Came a Blackbird

(Psychological drama -- Color)

Production: A Chanticleer Films production of a Showtime presentation. Produced by Richard Attenborough, Brian Eastman. Executive producers, Jana Sue Memel, Laura Dern. Directed by Jonathan Sanger. Screenplay, Kevin Droney. Camera (color), Kees Van Oostrum; production design, Barbara Dunphy; costume design, Linda Matheson; sound (Dolby), David Lee. Reviewed at Seattle Film Fest, June 10, 1995. Running time: 100 min. Helen McNulty ... Laura Dern Anna Lenke ... Vanessa Redgrave Tomas Ramirez ... Raul Julia Jan Talbeck ... Jay O. Sanders Nick the Greek ... Cliff Gorman Myrna ... Sarita Choudhury Cerises ... L. Scott Caldwell Two fine actresses, Vanessa Redgrave and Laura Dern, strive hard to elevate "Down Came a Blackbird," a psychological drama about political victimization and torture, above the routine level of TV melodramas. But they are defeated by the film's scale, therapeutic approach and, above all, its earnest, middlebrow sensibility, factors conspiring to relegate the movie to the tube, where it comfortably belongs. Jonathan Sanger has made a sensitive, if also too obvious, psycho-political melodrama that suffers from the same abstract and schematic qualities of "Death and the Maiden," which also deals with the psychological effects of political repression under dictatorial regimes.

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