After the straight horror content of 2018 narrative feature debut “Dachra,” which was released in the U.S. just six months ago, Abdelhamid Bouchnak aims for a more complex, unclassifiable mix of fantasy and drama in “Golden Butterfly.” Tunisia’s Oscar submission title is a somewhat mixed bag whose occasionally arresting parts work better than the whole. But its thematic ambition and visual panache further advance the writer-director as a significant emerging talent in the region.
A head-on opening sequence finds two bound and bloodied men being tortured, then executed, apparent rough justice for crimes we only learn about much later. Likely as not connected to this scene is protagonist Moaz (Mohamed Souissi), a hulking 30-ish cop who storms around his apartment like his default emotion is “Wanting to punch something.” Unsurprisingly, then, he soon learns he’s being suspended from duty for being “too angry these days,” a mild way of describing God knows what professional misconduct.
That news doesn’t improve his mood, natch. But he’s distracted by the inexplicable arrival of a mute boy (Rayen Daoudi), who refuses to be scared off by his ill temper. Surmising somehow that the child is going blind — a diagnosis Moaz himself has recently received — he decides to take the lad on an extended trip to “show him things he’ll never forget,” before they both stop seeing altogether.
Their episodic journey encompasses scary/whimsical sights of a “Pan’s Labyrinth” stripe while also hitting notes redolent of Fellini and Jodorowsky. They visit a man living in a warehouse who turns out to have bat-like wings, and a bordello of colorfully lit tableaux where one lady sports multiple extra eyes under her wig. Strangely, these wonders delight rather than terrify the silent boy, though he’s less keen on a later detour to another changeling’s underground lair, in which psychedelically hued sandhills are shaped like breasts (complete with nipples).
Interwoven throughout are flashbacks to a beauteous girlfriend whose tragic loss is one source of Moaz’s bitterness, as well as his past family life with an abusive alcoholic father (Fethi Haddaqui) he remains estranged from, despite the attempts of a sister (Hela Ayed) to reconcile the two. As if this weren’t quite enough toxic masculinity for one movie, there are also scenes with the bullish hero’s police chief (Brahim Zarrouk), who’s even worse — a source of fear for his wife and children, with still graver misdeeds hinted at.
These disparate elements don’t entirely mesh, with the real-world aspects sometimes less than clear, the fantastical ones’ metaphorical significance rather murky. Yet despite the relative plotlessness, it’s all designed and paced with enough assurance to comprise a stimulating cinematic trip into the subconscious. And the overall arc is touchingly plain enough, as the journey Moaz undergoes (ostensibly for the sake of a mystery child whose real identity isn’t hard to guess) is one needed to re-introduce tenderness and joy into his own life, from which he’s exiled them for years.
If “Golden Butterfly” doesn’t always fulfill its ambitions, they remain admirable, as is the visual imagination that Bouchnak considerably expands upon from “Dachra’s” spooky template. Helping pull the whole construct together is Hazma Bouchnak’s original score, which stretches from dirge-like ominousness to more playfully expressive moods.