Foreign Releases: When I Became a Butterfly (2019) - Reviewed

Iranian director Arash Zaare’s debut is a strange, unsettling plod through what is actually a quite surreal situation, a confined and claustrophobic picture of the life of a quietly suffering woman whose suffocated life is unexpectedly turned on its head. Its triumph is in its tenderness; the quietly stewing unnamed housewife – portrayed with elegance by the lovely Mitra Hajjar – resents her loutish, lazy, drug addict husband, but there is no outlet for her to escape from him. She is horrified when, during a scuffle over the presence of his drug habit beginning to affect their son, Kasra, he accidentally tumbles down the stairs and is killed. Faced with the reality that she is now saddled with the task of secreting his corpse within her home and trying to find a way to provide for herself and her child in a culture of limited means for women in her situation, her transformation is a slow, but satisfying, long game.

If, indeed, this film is based on true events as it claims, it’s difficult to imagine a woman of such resourcefulness being forced to handle such odd circumstances. The husband’s death is truly accidental, and she could not have prevented it, but there is no way she can go to the authorities – and so, she must hide the body and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Kasra – who at first is petulantly bitter and blames his mother for what has happened – is too young, really, to be expected to “be a man”, yet it is a man he must become as he eventually begins to help her by teaching her to drive his father’s motorcycle and encourages her when she must find work to do to ensure they can survive.

The woman’s metamorphosis is framed in the beauty of the cinematography. The home in which she and Kasra live is bright, airy, and full of light – but she is always framed in walls, in windows, or barred with railings and gates. Her life is a stifling, restrained routine of cleaning, cooking, going to market. Anytime she leaves the house, she is accosted by their neighbors and must make excuses for her husband’s behavior – he is a selfish, idle thief who does nothing to contribute to his household and makes trouble for most of the people he knows, but although she clearly dislikes her life with him, she is simply expected to accept her lot and be thankful he isn’t worse. Her mother-in-law, who has grown old in this culture, tells her to put up with things as best she can, and complains that younger women don’t appreciate the arts of being a wife and mother the way they should. The two women frame the scene, as between them in the background, Kasra relaxes and watches television; on one side, a progressive woman who feels trapped in her roles, facing off against a traditionalist who gave up having dreams of her own and focuses on her duties.

But slowly, and through nothing but her own ingenuity and impetus, Hajjar’s character begins to exit her contained cocoon and begins to bloom. As she does, outside the confines of her home, the glaring light softens around her and she is dressed brightly, and when she takes the motorcycle out into the night, the overhead highway lights twinkle above her smiling face like stars. As her spirit opens itself up to possibility, the world around her seems much wider; the meek figure clad in black as she shuffles to the fish market, afraid of disposing the body of a dead animal in her kitchen, is a completely different person by the film’s end. Her quiet resolve to do what she must saves her from encroaching darkness. The metaphor is apt – she emerges a more colorful, confident person with the ability to flutter forward.

Filmed in Tehran, When I Became a Butterfly centers itself on the microcosm of daily life and the psychological struggle of valuing tradition and reaching into modernity – two worlds are at play in this culture, and they battle for supremacy in the decisions the woman ultimately makes for herself and for her son. While billed as a thriller, it moves very slowly, and takes its time to let the horror of the situation sink in; the woman’s realization that her life is a very fine knife’s edge dawns on her as it creeps up on us, and while there are many scenes that seem to drag out longer than they should, there is a simultaneous brilliance to illustrating the emotional isolation and concentrated, silent loneliness within this woman as she begins pitting her desires against everything she has ever known life to be. But it is difficult to know how much of this metaphor is deliberate, and how much is simply coincidental.

Ultimately, When I Became a Butterfly is not terribly revolutionary, although it glimpses into a private world of personal turmoil and gives us a character who is determined to take an unbelievable situation and turn it to her advantage. It’s almost the picture of a wish coming true, but in the wrong way, and the recipient of the wish must uncover the path to happiness through soul-searching. The quiet courage of women like Hajjar’s housewife is a very real, and hidden, jewel in the real world. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, and what lies beneath the shadowed shrouds we see might be the myriad hues of a rainbow, desperate to survive the storm.

--Dana Culling