Trauma and Healing In Cria Cuervos
Films made from a child’s perspective deal with discovery, like E.T., or growing up, like Meet Me in St. Louis, or survival, like Lord of the Rings, but less frequently with trauma. Sometimes, as in Life Is Wonderful, the adults concoct a fabulous story to prevent the child from having to experience trauma, in this case the horrific experiences of life in Italy during World War II.
The loss of a parent can have a traumatic effect on a child, yet this loss can be mitigated if the remaining parent takes on a broader responsibility. Scout, through whose eyes we see the world in To Kill a Mockingbird, has lost her mother but her remarkable father, Atticus Finch, with the assistance of the housekeeper Calpurnia, provides a stable home and a secure attachment bond. While he maintains a law practice to support the family, Atticus usually comes home for the midday meal and always seems to have time to deal with his children’s concerns, often turning the occasion into a life lesson. When the children in Bergman’s masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander, lose their father, they exchange a life of wealth and kaleidoscopic variety for a cold and colorless existence when their mother remarries a dour cleric. The magical world that delights us in the first half of the film has been turned upside down through circumstance. Yet the mother’s consistent love helps the children adapt to their greatly altered circumstances without evident traumatic aftereffect.
Ana, the eight-year-old protagonist of Carlos Saura’s film Cria cuervos, witnessed her mother’s final agonizing weeks before she died of cancer. The preternaturally quiet child witnesses all kinds of “adult” events simply by silently occupying an unobtrusive spot in the background. The film opens with the death of her father, a military officer, in the arms of his mistress who, as Ana watches, hurriedly gathers her clothes and flees the scene.
Later we learn that Ana and her sisters—Irene, 11 years old, and Maite, 5—attributed their mother’s death to the stress caused by her husband’s philandering. All three girls have wished for their father’s death, as proper punishment, but only Ana has taken action. Sometime earlier her mother had asked her to throw away a container of baking soda, warning the girl that it was a powerful poison. “Just a spoonful would kill an elephant.” Ana has given her father a glass of milk laced with the “poison,” whose efficacy is confirmed for her by his death.
With their father frequently absent and their mother on her deathbed, the girls had effectively been raised by the housekeeper Rosa, who gave them great liberty. Now left parentless, the girls come into the care of their Aunt Paulina, whose strict rules come as a harsh contrast to the relative freedom they previously enjoyed. One afternoon in Paulina’s absence, the girls dress up in her clothes and enact the drama of their late parents’ unhappy relationship. In an effort to escape the aunt’s authoritarian rule, Ana administers a dose of the “deadly poison,” only to find it ineffectual.
Unlike the other film protagonists we have mentioned, Ana has lost both of her parents. Her dispassionate gaze conceals her feelings, but the film depicts what I suggest to be a traumatic response to her loss. Dissociation, a familiar coping mechanism for dealing with trauma, often takes the form of imaginative constructions. The second scene of Cria cuervos shows Ana in the kitchen, washing out the glass of “poison” with which she believes she has killed her father. Her mother casually appears in the scene, and it takes us a while to identify this figure as the creation of Ana’s imagination.
A subsequent scene depicts the three girls at play in their backyard around an empty, abandoned swimming pool. At one point Ana looks up to see herself, standing at the second-floor balcony. As the camera adopts the point of view of this apparition, Ana evidently wonders what it would be like to jump from the balcony. The camera then embodies this imagined fall—not a death plunge, however, but the dance-like movements of a butterfly in flight. The consecutive images of Ana on the ground and Ana on the balcony brilliantly illustrate the kind of “out of body” experience often encountered in dissociation.
Throughout the film, Ana seems to explore death as a phenomenon devoid of emotions, another suggestion of traumatic dissociation. When her pet hamster Roni dies, Ana matter-of-factly holds a funeral ceremony for the rodent. When her grandmother looks sadly at mounted photographs from the vantage point of her wheelchair, Ana offers to hasten the end of her life with her powerful “poison.” (The grandmother declines the offer.) When Ana finds her aunt’s discipline overly restrictive, she calmly prepares a glass of milk laced with the “poison,” imagining that she can do away with the aunt as easily as she has removed her father. Children of course lack a mature perspective of death, but Ana’s casual involvement in what we would usually describe as murder suggests a dissociative detachment from reality, one important marker of trauma.
During the film Ana relies on imaginary appearances of her mother for comfort. Having experienced the vision of her mother in the kitchen, Ana discovers that she can conjure up her mother’s presence by squeezing her eyes tightly together. In this way Ana “summons” her mother to tell her a beloved story as she lies in bed late at night, and “visits” her mother in the living room, where she prevails on the woman to play a favorite piece of music at the piano. As the creation of an eight-year-old’s mind, the imagined mother is consistently kind, understanding and compliant. Her mild rebukes—“Do you know what time it is?”—contrast with the sharp criticism of Aunt Paulina, who finds it incomprehensible that the girls have never learned proper table manners.
Through the conjuring of her mother’s image, and the administrations of the powerful “poison,” Ana finds ways of becoming an active agent in her life and not simply a passive victim. That these actions are based on fantasy does not, to my mind, deprive them of therapeutic value.
The girls and their aunt make a visit to a villa belonging to their father’s military associate and his wife, who turns out to be the mistress observed in the opening scene. When the girls are sent to play outside, we see them running in a row, led by the eldest Irena. The scene depicts Ana in a transitional stage between fantasy and reality. When the girls play hide-and-seek, Ana shows herself to be a keen observer. Yet moments later, when Ana walks with her aunt and their hosts, her apparitional mother appears beside her.
Throughout the film Ana appears expressionless, smiling only in the imagined presence of her mother. We are left to surmise her feelings of loss, abandonment, and presumably guilt at being the apparent agent of her father’s death. The matter-of-fact presentation of events, without emotional overlay, cannot be attributed entirely to trauma, for Ana has been like a camera, wordlessly observing everything that goes on around her.
Despite its apparently depressing surface the film carries a message of healing and hope. We see evidence of trauma in four episodes of fantasy and imagination in response to Ana’s catastrophic circumstances: (1) the “poison” with which she apparently killed her father and with which she attempts to kill her aunt (and offers to euthanize her grandmother); (2) the “butterfly” flight as she imagines jumping off the balcony of the house; (3) the dramatic re-enactment of the conflict between her parents; (4) the repeated “visits” in which she is able to conjure up her mother’s presence.
By the end of the film Ana has been able to get past fantasy. The supposed poison has lost its efficacy; her mother stops appearing in response to her eye-squeezing summons; she does not repeat the costume drama or the imagined jump. The action of the film takes place during the children’s summer vacation from school, an interval of freedom from the strict reality of their usual school life. The end of fantasy comes with the end of the school vacation. Ana now seems to have accepted the necessity of facing reality without magical assistance.
Yet she is not alone. The final scene of the film, showing the girls in uniform walking single file, echoes the joyful scene of the sisters running in a line as they go to play. Throughout the film we see the girls supporting one another, epitomized in the charming scene in which they take turns dancing together. As the film closes we see Ana, the middle child, between the two sisters whose support we anticipate will continue for the rest of her life. The trauma has not ended, and we have seen no professional intervention that might help Ana to process her devastating losses, but the film does portray an essential transition from dissociative fantasy to an acceptance of reality which suggests, to my mind, that Ana, with the support of her sisters, will eventually heal.
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