Marco Bellocchio continues down the artistic path suggested by his psychotherapist and, in this case, his screenwriter in “The Butterfly’s Dream.” Its exploration of existential themes is informed by arcane psychological theory , which calls on viewers to grasp the story intuitively rather than rationally. Strictly for those who like to contemplate philosophical puzzles while they follow a symbolic narrative, pic is a prestige European arthouse entry that will appeal to a very restricted audience.
Massimo (Thierry Blanc) is a young classical actor who has taken a singular vow: Apart from play dialogue, he won’t speak a word to anyone. Pic suggests different reasons for his decision.
His thick-skinned father (Roberto Herlitzka) thinks he might be reacting to a disappointment in love. The most plausible explanation seems to be that silence (to which he largely converts girlfriend Simona Cavallari) is his form of rebellion against poet Mom (Bibi Andersson) and classic-lit scholar Dad.
Occasionally, instead of answering a question, Massimo bursts out with a perfectly appropriate citation from “Oedipus at Colonus” or “The Prince of Homburg.” It is a tribute to Bellocchio’s control (or his lack of a sense of humor) that this eccentricity doesn’t cross the line into involuntary comedy.
A bizarre director (“Heimat” vet Michael Seyfried) is struck by Massimo’s perf onstage. He appeals to Andersson to write a play about her son and his extraordinary resolution. Deeply worried about the boy, she agrees. But even after acting the part of himself, Massimo refuses to become “normal.”
Clearly, everyday logic doesn’t go far in “Butterfly.” As a man says, throwing his married daughter into the arms of her gypsy suitor: “You just have to be intelligent enough to understand fairy tales.” Most viewers, however, are likely to find the film less playful and poetic than plain exasperating.
To dig under his characters’ skin, Bellocchio uses all kinds of stylization, such as deliberately stilted dialogue and gestures, theatrically framed shots, a stop-start score by Carlo Crivelli, starkly simple costumes by Lia Morandini and non-logical editing by Francesca Calvelli, which continually disrupts the narrative thread.
Cast is solidly in synch with Bellocchio’s intentions, performing in proper theatrical style. Young Swiss stage thesp Blanc is enigmatically expressive as the semi-mute hero, forced to construct a character using only glances, gestures and a little Shakespeare and Sophocles.
The same can be said of the whole cast, who overcome screenwriter Massimo Fagioli’s unnatural dialogue (every line aims at profundity) through sheer bravura. Particularly good are Andersson and Herlitzka as the parents. Nathalie Boutefeu, playing Massimo’s girlishly restless sister-in-law, manages to verge on high villainy when she attempts to seduce him, while Cavallari looks underage and submissive as his adoring g.f.
Breathtaking lighting by cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis is sensuous in the extreme. Long shadows follow characters like thoughts; faces appear against a totally black background. Pic’s natural landscapes — from gorgeous Swiss-lake country to a rocky Greek isle — are surcharged with psychic energy.