First-time actress Sara Podda (right) stars in Pretty Butterflies
  • First-time actress Sara Podda (right) stars in Pretty Butterflies

At nearly every international film festival in Chicago, one inevitably finds titles that recall adolescents’ first attempts at poetry. These films reference seasons, emotions, and plants (and some occasions, all three), and suggest an unhealthy degree of preciousness. I usually end up seeing at least one of these at every festival, either out of professional obligation or because I feel like exploring the outer reaches of the program. More often than not the films live down to their names (in my experience, the ones with love in the title have had the worst track record), but I’ve learned to give them the benefit of the doubt. Distributors have been known to give movies more generic titles for the international festival circuit, likely because there’s always an audience for preciousness. And as most artists will tell you, coming up with a title can be one of the hardest parts of any creative endeavor. Even certain great filmmakers (Mike Leigh is one that comes to mind) have never mastered this step of the process.

In short, I was prepared for the worst when I went into Pretty Butterflies yesterday at the European Union Film Festival, but I knew better than to let my suspicions keep me away. For one thing, I was encouraged by the fact that the movie came from Italy, whose national cinema seems to be in a healthy state these days. I also had to concede that Pretty Butterflies is no worse a title than The Great Beauty, a recent Italian export that kept the preciousness to a minimum.

I’m glad I took the plunge—Pretty Butterflies is lively, pungent stuff. Its immersive portrait of Sardinia’s lower depths is often shocking, though less for its content than for writer-director Salvatore Mereu’s nonjudgmental perspective. The film’s protagonist is a 12-year-old girl who lives in a cramped public housing apartment with her disabled mother, deadbeat father, prostitute sister (who’s 20 and has kids of her own), and two adolescent brothers who are already hardened gang members. Caterina, who also narrates, accepts the criminality around her as a given and tries to enjoy her childhood regardless. Over the few summer days when the movie takes place, Caterina hangs out with her best friend Luna (who might be her illegitimate half sister), goes to the beach, gets into a little trouble, and teases a boy she likes. Never does she seem like an object of pity, no matter how dire her surroundings seem.

Like certain films by Pier Paolo Pasolini (the subject of an upcoming Siskel Center retrospective) or Shohei Imamura, Butterflies revels in the raw energy of its seedy milieu. However detached, Mereu’s camerawork exhibits plenty of energy, as though the camera is eager to keep up with the onscreen action. Simply getting by in a community plagued by gangs, drugs, and prostitution, the movie argues, requires a special vitality—and the tough-talking (but still idealistic) Caterina possesses it in spades. A remarkable discovery, the first-time actress Sara Podda plays Caterina with remarkable ease, never coming off as naive or precocious. Indeed the whole cast exhibits a casual gallows humor, making for a surprisingly rousing experience. The film screens again on Thursday at 8:15 PM. If you think you’ll have a hard time convincing your friends to see something called Pretty Butterflies, make up a grittier-sounding title—they may thank you for it later.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.