Before the New York Open Roads Italian Cinema luncheon for the Rome delegation of filmmakers, I asked Salvatore Mereu, the director of Pretty Butterflies (Bellas Mariposas) about his faithfulness to Sergio Atzeni's unfinished story of the same title and the finding of his film's remarkable protagonist. We discussed the influence of Federico Fellini and Eric Rohmer and how one wet cat can add magical dimension to a movie.
Set in the slums of Cagliari, the capitol of Sardinia, we follow Caterina (Sara Podda), through a day and a night and back to the same day, while she addresses the camera directly and comments on the large multi-dimensional family that surrounds her and the neighbours, whose unforgettable nightly rituals include bathtubs, buckets, and loud military songs.
Anne-Katrin Titze: I was surprised by the tone of your film on the one hand, and the subject matter on the other. The juxtaposition is great.
Salvatore Mereu: It is based on the novel [by Sergio Atzeni]. The thing that I appreciated about the book was this double dimension - the drama and at the same time there was the lightness. That really impressed me about the book.
AKT: You capture that in your film. The 12-year-old girl, who is the narrator and lives in the slums of Cagliari, talks about her sister being a prostitute and the father's awful behaviour, very serious issues and yet, there is a lightness and light to her that seems real. Maybe because the perspective from which we witness is so loving?
SM: It was a dare I made doing this movie. It's one thing to have something written on paper, the other is to have a 12-year-old [Sara Podda] who had never acted before bring this to the movie.
AKT: She is wonderful. And the little sister, too. How did you find them?
SM: I'm a teacher in real life. For a year I went to teach in a school in the town where we made the film, which is completely different from the place where I live, in Nuoro in central Sardinia. I picked the students from the school where I taught, and the schools from around there. The little girl I found playing on a square nearby. That was the advantage of actually living in that world, not being an outsider. The main character [who speaks directly to the camera and guides us through the entire film] is very complex and I saw a lot of young girls before I picked the protagonist. I knew that she was the one I wanted, because when she came for the screen-test with her mother, she had a flower behind her ear. The mother really wanted her to get this role. She, in fact, couldn't care less. She almost made me believe that she was doing me a favour to accept the part. This was her way of making me understand that she was interesting.
AKT: You go very far into territories of repulsion or disgust, and yet, you pull it off with humour. There is a bathtub scene that I believe nobody who has seen it will ever forget. Also a scene with the father in the abandoned bus on the beach where bodily fluids are, let's say, shouldered. Were there parts in the novel that were too strong to put into the movie?
SM: I tried to be faithful to the book - even if you sometimes want to betray the story. The big difficulty in adapting this book was that the whole story is almost one long monologue in the format of the girl's diary entries. There was no dialogue. All the situations were told indirectly. We made decisions from different ideas that came out of the book. I was using some of the people's real-life experiences. You can't tell the difference between the fiction and the real-life stories. Even though the story is based on a fantasy it is based in a reality the writer himself knew very well.
AKT: There are scenes in your film steeped in the history of cinema. You can't help but think Fellini for certain tropes. The scenes at the beach, for example. How did they come about?
SM: The beach scenes were in the book. It is inevitable when you make a film, you put things in that come from your experience and from the world of cinema, without thinking about it. There is a bit of Fellini in the figure of the magician, the fortune teller. The day the two friends spend in the city was more inspired by Eric Rohmer, a filmmaker I admire very much. Sometimes you do it explicitly as an homage to a film you really love, other times it happens unconsciously.
AKT: In a surprising scene, the heroine pulls a wet cat out of the water. It's a funny moment and just about sums up the movie.
SM: This is something that was not in the book. In the book, the magician appears with an array of cats around her. With the production cost, we could not afford to try to shoot a scene with so many [trained?] cats. So we decided to give her one cat and make it one we already knew from before. So we wanted to have the same cat throughout the whole film to prepare the spectator for the magical dimension that opens up at the end.
The beautiful confusion is anchored in an ugly reality of prostitution, incest, poverty, and lack of education. An abandoned bus by the sea could have been placed there through the imagination of Guido, Marcello Mastroianni's film director in Fellini's 8½. A top specimen of audacious filmmaking, Salvatore Mereu's bold and valiant Pretty Butterflies is a highlight of this year's Open Roads Italian Cinema programme. Neither sermon, nor parody, Mereu's movie somersaults through genre and creates its own.
Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from June 6-12, 2013, at New York's Lincoln Center.