Film Review: ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’

A glossily romantic take on the story of two Turkish poets during the Second World War.

Kivanc Tatlitug, Belcim Bilgin, Mert Firat, Farah Zeynep Abdullah, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Taner Birsel, Ipek Bilgin, Devrim Yakut, Aksel Bonfil, Servet Pandur, Ayten Soykokemin Gursoy, Celalettin Demirel, Funda Sirinkal, Engin Senkan, Salih Kalyon. By Dennis Harvey

Purportedly Turkey’s most expensive film production to date, “The Butterfly’s Dream” offers a glossily romantic take on a story at least loosely derived from real life. Its subjects are Muzaffer Uslu and Rustu Onur, two aspiring provincial poets who both died young of tuberculosis. The sort of glam costume fantasy in which any ordinary moment might be set against a spectacular landscape or sunset, this tale of youthful high spirits, friendship and variably requited love is pleasant eye-candy without the depth or edge to escape cliched conventionality. The result, which was Turkey’s Oscar submission last year, may be too commercial in feel for markets where foreign-language films are strictly arthouse fare, but it should repeat its home-turf success in other Arab and expat territories, with somewhat wider home-format sales likely.

This long-gestating project for writer-helmer-thesp Yilmaz Erdogan (“Vizontele”), a poet himself, has singlehandedly “made” the reputations of its protagonists nearly 70 years after their deaths (collections of their hitherto obscure work hit the bestseller charts after the film was released in Egypt last year). It’s hard to judge the poetry’s value in the brief excerpts recited here. But in any case, “The Butterfly’s Dream” is a portrait of the artists in the old mode of “A Song to Remember” and such, their creative labor seeming mostly a matter of inspirational lightning strikes amid hardships that somehow manage to seem glamorous. In a depressed WWII-era economy, the characters here complain they have little food or money, yet that (or even TB) scarcely seems to hobble their ability to live life as if on perpetual holiday — they romp, they gambol, they stroll and lounge, always looking terrific in their period threads.

We meet Muzaffer (Kivanc Tatlitug) and Rustu (Mert Firat) in pre-Pearl Harbor 1941, with the war still confined to Europe. Still, things are tough in Zonguldak, a small city on the Black Sea; the political regime is oppressive, and jobs are scarce. Committed to their (as yet unpublished) poetry, however, the two young men mostly ignore any deprivations, and find mutual inspiration when they first see Suzan (Belcim Bilgin), a rich schoolgirl who has just returned from Istanbul. They convince her to participate in an original play they’re rehearsing (as it’s being written) about the dangerous, miserable conditions suffered by local coal-mine workers.

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But after much chaste frolicking, their friendship is rendered more furtive by Suzan’s disapproving father. Then Rustu, his condition worsening, is accepted to a distant island sanitarium, where he meets a love of his own (Farah Zeynep Abdullah); further wooing of Suzan is thus surrendered to Muzaffer, whose health soon deteriorates as well.

With its lively pace (trimmed for international release from an original running time of 138 minutes), likable performers and lush picture-postcard look, “The Butterfly’s Dream” is to poetry what “Titanic” was to nautical disasters. History gets somewhat obscured by the pervasive gauzy romanticism, which denies us any real character complexity or narrative surprises.

With his sensitive good looks, model-turned-thesp Tatlitug fares best, given the pic’s correlation between the picturesque and the soulful. Bilgin is OK but doesn’t make Suzan seem very special, let alone the enchantress her poor suitors see her as. Other characters are solidly cast (Erdogan himself plays the boys’ mentor Behcet Necatigil, who, unlike them, would achieve fame as a poet within his lifetime), but not given much dimension in the screenplay.

Design contributions are invariably handsome, if occasionally bordering on the overripe, particularly Rahman Altin’s orchestral score. Tech package is first-rate.

Film Review: 'The Butterfly's Dream'

Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 6, 2013. Running time: 123 MIN. (Original title: "Kelebegin ruyasi")

Production: (Turkey) A BKM presentation of a Mamutfilm production in association with Bocek Yapim. (International sales: BKM, Istanbul.) Produced by Necati Akpinar. Executive producers, Oguz Peri, Pelin Ekinci Kaya.

Crew: Directed, written by Yilmaz Erdogan. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Gokhan Tiryaki; editors, Bora Goksingol, Cagri Turkkan; music, Rahman Altin; production designer, Kivanc Baruonu; art director, Hakan Yarkin; costume designer, Gulumser Gurtunca; sound mixer (Dolby Digital), Levent Intepe; sound designer, Burak Topalakci; re-recording mixers, Adam Daniel, Graham Daniel; casting, Rezzan Cankir.

With: Kivanc Tatlitug, Belcim Bilgin, Mert Firat, Farah Zeynep Abdullah, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Taner Birsel, Ipek Bilgin, Devrim Yakut, Aksel Bonfil, Servet Pandur, Ayten Soykokemin Gursoy, Celalettin Demirel, Funda Sirinkal, Engin Senkan, Salih Kalyon. By Dennis Harvey

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