Sundance 2018: A Dark Comedy of a Recovering Family in Butterflies

When he receives a surprise phone call from his father in Turkey at the opening of Tolga Karaçelik’s often hilarious dark comedy Butterflies, Cemal has been living in Germany for almost thirty years. Trained as an astronaut, he’s now leading an absurd media-based protest against the German government, demanding that he and his perpetually grounded colleagues be sent on an actual mission.

His father’s call, as it turns out, offers an equally unlikely imperative: Cemal must gather his siblings, younger brother Kenan and sister Suzan, and bring them to their father’s country home, where the three almost grew up. Almost because the family was torn apart and scattered by the tragedy of their mother’s death, and the children have barely spoken to each other, or their father, in the years since.

Though the siblings have followed very different paths, each seems to have struggled in their personal and professional lives. Cemal is unmarried, Suzan is in the midst of ending her marriage to a perpetually distracted engineer, and Kenan is wallowing in the dregs of a television career, barely acknowledging that his brother and sister exist. And yet, after some rocky reintroductions, seeming to understand how much they need each other right now, they take to the road together, recollecting old times, bickering, and learning to adapt to their new proximity, questioning if it can last.

The bulk of the film takes place in the old hometown, a deeply weird place, where everyone, even the chickens, are behaving strangely, though this seems to have nothing to do with the siblings’ earlier traumatic experience. The comic set pieces here seem motivated by a Turkish version of city mouse-country mouse humor that nevertheless translates well, and while the jokes aren’t always that sophisticated, they don’t need to be to inspire some serious belly laughs. Leavened by the darkness of the circumstances and the fine chemistry between Cemal, Kenan, and Suzan, Butterflies develops into an interesting and moving portrait of three lost people chasing after an elusive meaning for their suffering amongst the ruins of a past that remains full of mystery.

Bonus Material: My mother came to town for her first Sundance Film Festival this year, and she picked this film for us. Here’s her take: It was a little reminiscent of an Italian comedy from the 60s (a different sense of humor, though, and a little heavy on the yelling—maybe that was an issue with the sound mix?). Still, having never seen a Turkish film before, Mom liked the opportunity to get a sense of the culture and landscape of the country. She also appreciated the unity of the butterflies as an image. And oh, that ending.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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