A weird yet welcome sideshow oddity on the stage of international art cinema, “Sadourni’s Butterflies” blends black-and-white lensing, a lovestruck circus dwarf and Jorge Luis Borges’ literary influence into an attraction nonpareil among celluloid storytellers. Nearly a dozen years in the making, Argentine director Dario Nardi’s visual-driven, not-quite-silent feature debut most closely resembles the work of Guy Madden, tipping its hat to the ghosts of German expressionism even as it forges a path all its own. Though certain frames prove unforgettable, the logic required to make sense of them in sequence too easily eludes, ultimately pegging the pic for niche appreciation.
For those confused by the film’s title, Sadourni is the name of a dwarf (Cristian Medrano) obsessed with transforming himself, a trait he shares with nearly all the characters with whom he interacts. He wants to be taller, naturally, after having been cuckolded in his previous relationship — a dalliance that sends Sadourni to prison for the murder of his pregnant mistress.
Though not immediately apparent beneath his thick clown makeup, both character and star are a good decade younger in the film’s garishly tinted prologue owing to the unusually long production schedule. Nardi’s style also seems to have mellowed somewhat between these flashbacks and the present, allowing the story to settle into a more elegant rhythm when Sadourni is paroled several years later, though it’s still confusing to follow many of the story beats, to the extent that the avant-garde sequence of images often borders on inscrutable.
As Sadourni falls for a new love, he considers a return to the carnival and dabbles in fetish porn, hawking his treasures in order to afford a quack medical procedure designed to extend his height. It all plays like a half-remembered fever dream excavated from the earliest days of cinema, composed of individually stunning shots that never quite sublimate into anything tangible, but delight in their ingenuity and general affection for a visual style long considered lost.