In Parables, a Harsh Beauty - "Birth of a Butterfly" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

Mojtaba Raei's mystical meditation, "Birth of a Butterfly," was filmed in the mountains of northwestern Iran, where the people's elemental relationship with nature is colored by an intense spiritual faith. Consisting of three parables in which that faith is tested, the movie suggests that Christianity and Western culture have no monopoly on turning out religious kitsch. Although "Birth of a Butterfly" is comparatively restrained and tasteful as these things go, it imitates the Hollywood technique of using gushy music to underscore moments of revelation.

The protagonist of one parable is a shining-eyed teacher who leaves civilization behind to trek through the wilderness and instruct the children in a remote mountain village. Exuding a charismatic radiance, he becomes an informal adviser to the community. When one man who has lost a cow wonders where he can find it, the teacher suggests he look in a certain field. Another man is waiting for his son who disappeared a year ago to return. The teacher counsels patience and says the son will soon come back.

When both insights prove true, word spreads through the village that the teacher is a prophet. And when a flood threatens the community, the villagers plead with him to intercede with God. Even after the teacher insists he has no special powers, they refuse to believe him and stalk off angrily.

The miraculous upshot of the parable could just as well be Christian as Islamic (in the entire movie there's no mention of Allah), and can be summed up in one sentence: And the faith of a child shall lead them.

The other parables are not as clear-cut. In one, a man whose wife is critically ill blames his innocent stepchildren. In another, a young boy on a pilgrimage to a sacred spring whose waters are supposed to cure all ills engages in a dialogue with an old man he meets along the way.

"Birth of a Butterfly," which will be shown on tomorrow at 5:45 P.M. and Monday at 9 P.M. at the Museum of Modern Art as part of New Directors/New Films, is best appreciated as a kind of visual poem in which human beings are seen as intelligent wildlife clinging to the rocks of a harshly beautiful natural landscape. The faith the movie explores seems to spring naturally from an environment where human life is so entirely at the mercy of the elements that catastrophic events are assumed to have spiritual and moral dimensions.

Originally Published March 27, 1999

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