Pretty Butterflies

Pretty Butterflies


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

A top specimen of audacious filmmaking, Salvatore Mereu's bold and valiant Pretty Butterflies (Bellas mariposas) is a highlight of this year's Open Roads Italian Cinema programme. Set in the slums of Cagliari, the capitol of Sardinia, we follow 12-year-old 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.

Caterina's family, unbearable without being either cartoonish or bleak, would be too much for anybody, so Caterina dreams of becoming a singer and spends her days with best friend and possible sister Luna (Maya Mulas) on the beach and on the (empty) town, having a lot of ice cream and confronting pesky stalkers and relatives. Her perennially unemployed father, one of the most shameless characters to do the most shameful things on screen in a long time, is played by Luciano Curreli as a remarkable balancing act, between predator and clown.

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A number of films (What Maisie Knew, based on the Henry James story, is the latest example), successfully portray the world from the perspective of a young child, with often horrendous circumstances discerned as the normal every-day. It is a coping mechanism, of course, and changes with age. Mereu's very sophisticated take on this Jamesian perspective, presents Caterina at a cusp between acceptance of an outrageous routine and dreamy potent rebellion.

In order to pull this off, he needed a remarkable actress, and he found one in Podda, who had never acted before and showed up to the screen test with a flower behind her ear. In a conversation with Mereu, he told me how her nonchalance convinced him: "She almost made me believe that she was doing me a favour to accept the part."

We see Caterina's family routine through her eyes and in great appalling detail. Mereu makes her normality clash with his audience's sense of disapproval and the result is irreverently dead-pan funny. One brother (we never really know how many she has) comes home in the middle of the night to do drugs on the bunk bed across from her, the little sister snorkels in the bathtub whenever she can, the slightly older sister works as a prostitute and wants Caterina to hold her two children so that she can sleep a little at sunrise. Another brother plays football, in the hopes of becoming famous one day to escape the conditions.

Soccer and a singing career are the dream alternatives to prostitution and drug dealing, Caterina reflects to the camera, while the father cuts his toenails, one of his least disturbing acts.

When he doesn't lock himself in the family's only bathroom to watch a programme called The Strip Of The Day, he rubs up against strangers on public transportation or meets his daughter's teenage pal Samantha (Anna Karina Dyatlyk in a difficult role of innocence and ambivalence), who does some business with her classmates and other clients in an abandoned bus by the sea. The bus could have been placed in the dunes by the imagination of Guido, Marcello Mastroianni's film director in Fellini's 8½.

Caterina and her best friend Luna think alike, "all the time" and escape the slum to a beach, frequented by sun bathers from different social backgrounds. Swimming and friendship and sound evaluations of the people around them, are reminiscent of Eric Rohmer's sketches of truth, a filmmaker Mereu mentioned to me as an influence. How Cate and Luna at the beach make a U-turn and land so naturally in a land of magical realism (fortune teller plus cat included) with more than a wink from Fellini, is thrilling to behold.

The beautiful confusion in Pretty Butterflies is anchored in an ugly reality of prostitution, incest, poverty, and lack of education. Neither sermon, nor parody, Mereu's movie somersaults through genre and creates its own.

Reviewed on: 14 Jun 2013
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Two 12-year-old girls set out to spend the day at the beach.

Director: Salvatore Mereu

Starring: Sara Podda, Maya Mulas, Davide Todde, Micaela Ramazzotti, Luciano Curreli, Maria Loi, Rosalba Piras

Year: 2012

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy


Italian 2013

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