AUSTIN NORDIC FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | February 27, 2011
Director: Dome Karukoski
Writer(s): Marko Leino (screenplay), Leena Lander (novel)
Starring: Niilo Syväoja, Tommi Korpela, Kristiina Halttu
Juhani (Niilo Syväoja) has been bounced around foster homes for the last six years; he is a young teenager when he arrives at The Island, a boys’ reformatory run by Olavi (Tommi Korpela), an administrator with a severe god complex (“I am God and this is my kingdom”). Juhani has been sent to The Island because he is considered to be a hopeless case, which is apparently Olavi’s specialty, but other than his disregard of authority and reclusive behavior, we are given no signs of Juhani being hopeless. It is apparent however, that Juhani has never recovered from a severe psychological trauma — the mysterious death of his baby sibling — that occurred in his murky as pond-water past. Immediately following his sibling’s death, Juhani was separated from his parents (the reasons for this separation are not revealed at first). Whatever happened, Juhani is carrying an intense amount of guilt and its difficult to surmise whether or not Juhani knows what he is guilty of.
A surprise visit by his father (Pertti Sveholm) to The Island shakes the cobwebs free in Juhani’s brain, triggering a series of nightmarish flashbacks that puts the puzzle pieces together not just for us but for Juhani as well. Juhani’s father also gives Olavi a harebrained scheme to raise silkworms on The Island for profit (this has never been done before in this far-north climate). That pipe dream is set in motion when the government announces that they will no longer fund The Island, leaving Olavi, his family and seven students to fend for themselves.
It also becomes apparent that Juhani has some repressed emotions concerning female infidelity. During several flashbacks we learn that Juhani’s mother (Matleena Kuusniemi) may or may not have cheated on his father — it is suspected that Juhani’s deceased sibling was not sired by Juhani’s father. On The Island, Juhani suspects that his romantic interest, Olavi’s daughter Vanamo (Marjut Maristo), might be sleeping with one of his classmates, the exact same stud who Juhani discovers is nailing Olavi’s wife (Kristiina Halttu). The web of sexual intrigue and related violence becomes a little too much of Juhani to handle.
Juhani does not carry the burden of the cross of guilt lightly, the question is whether he will discover redemption before the weight becomes too much for him to bear. Every time things appear to be improving for Juhani, there is always a turn for the worse, as if the kid has not been punished enough.
Director Dome Karukoski’s The Home of Dark Butterflies, which was adapted by Marko Leino from Leena Lander’s novel — really piles on the melodrama with murders, suicides, infidelities, and psychological torments aplenty, but the situations all seem to play out in perfectly believable ways. There are few Hollywood directors who could pull of this incredible feat, and in the wrong hands I would have really hated the hyper-emotional tendencies of The Home of Dark Butterflies. Karukoski utilizes a great deal of subtlety and finesse to keep the dramatic scenarios completely honest. (Maybe it is ingrained in his Nordic sensibilities?) And Syväoja deserves at least some of the credit as well, because he is the one who must weather the shit storm in a convincing way, all the while earning the audience’s sympathy…despite being a suspected baby-killer.