PALM SPRINGS — Two struggling poet friends in 1940s Turkey fall for the same girl in The Butterfly’s Dream, a sumptuously mounted and well-acted period drama from Turkish actor-director and occasional poet Yilmaz Erdogan (Vizontele).
The film, in which Erdogan co-stars as famous Turkish bard Behcet Necatigil, who was a teacher and something of a mentor for the two young and little-known protagonists, was the country’s submission for foreign-language Oscar consideration this year. Though it did not make the shortlist, the film — reportedly the most expensive Turkish production ever made — did notch up 2.5 million admissions at home and turned the late leads into more famous poets in the process. Erdogan, more famous stateside for his work as an actor for regional auteurs such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) and Bahman Ghobadi (Rhino Season), again proves he’s not only an ambitious but also a very fine director in his own right. The Butterfly’s Dream should continue to do the festival rounds after its bow in Palm Springs.
The story is mainly set in early 1940s Zonguldak and, after a prologue set in the future, opens with a couple of dazzling, beautifully choreographed Steadicam shots that immediately establish that the city is a major mining town on the Black Sea and that, because of WWII, all the young and able-bodied men are forced to work in the mines.
Two of the young workers include the dark-eyed Rustu Onur (Mert Firat) and blue-eyed Muzaffer Tayyer Uslu (Kivanc Tatlitug), friends from school who each have a very different outlook on life but share two passions: writing poetry and looking at beautiful women. Their world is turned upside down when they lay their eyes on the gorgeous Suzan (actress Belcim Bilgin, Erdogan’s wife), the daughter of a local industrialist (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Erdogan’s co-star in both Anatolia and Rhino Season) who has just arrived from Istanbul.
The delicate city flower looks very out of place in the provincial town but Rustu and Muzaffer are more than willing to make her feel at home, much to the displeasure of her father. She secretly becomes involved in Love in Time of Compulsory Labor, a one-act play that the boys are writing and directing, though she does admit she’s more into sports than poetry. When their passions come to a boil, the men agree to let Suzan decide whom to pick by writing two poems and asking her which one she prefers. But both men come down with tuberculosis, contracted in the mines, and the answer to their burning question is postponed indefinitely.
The screenplay, written by Erdogan, may be very classical on a basic plot level but is full of asides and poetic flourishes that seem entirely appropriate. Rustu and Muzaffer are incarnations of optimism and pessimism, respectively, a point driven home perhaps too literally at times but something that nonetheless helps give a more universal dimension to the specific story of two friends in love with the same girl during wartime. The idea that love and poetry feed off of each other is illustrated beautifully.
The cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki, Ceylan’s regular cinematographer and the Steadicam operator on Reha Erdem’s modern rural classic Times and Winds, is composed of one beautiful shot after the other. Editors Bora Goksingol and Cagri Turkkan often forego establishing shots, which results in the surrounding beauty of the landscapes or interiors often unexpectedly showing up when a wider shot is introduced in a sequence, a poetic way in which the film continues to surprise visually as well.
Acting is solid from top to bottom but it’s the subtle and soulful work of Tatlitug, a model-turned-actor, that impresses the most, and not only because he becomes the de facto lead in the film’s second half. Production and costume design are as sumptuous as the score.
Venue: Palm Springs Film Festival (Awards Buzz)
Production company: BKM Film
Cast: Kivanc Tatlitug, Belcim Bilgin, Mert Firat, Farah Zeynep Abdullah, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan
Writer-director: Yilmaz Erdogan
Producer: Necati Akpinar
Director of photography: Gokhan Tiryaki
Production designer: Kivanc Baruonu
Music: Rahman Altin
Costume designer: Gulumser Gurtunca
Editors: Bora Goksingol, Cagri Turkkan
No rating, 138 minutes.