To know a film is a giallo is to be primed with a set of aesthetic expectations: splashy deaths, naked women, and black leather gloves. But giallo — Italian for “yellow,” the color of mystery paperback covers — encompasses a wider rage of films than just the flashy Argento-style slashers. The Bloodstained Butterfly, despite its florid title, is a solid whodunit about the murder of a teenage girl, like a 70s Italian Law & Order episode but with a heightened level of dramatic histrionics from Austrian oddball leading man Helmut Berger.
Duccio Tessari’s film begins during a thunderstorm with the murder of Francoise, a French student in northern Italy. After witnesses see Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) fleeing the scene and easily identify him as a TV sports personality, he is arrested and convicted of Francoise’s murder. The court scenes inject some dramatic Italian flair into the proceedings, including blockbuster testimony from Alessandro’s wife (70s genre mainstay Evelyn Stewart), and he is convicted. But as the murders continue with Alessandro in jail, who is the real killer?
While the investigation plays out, so does a subplot with Berger as the playboy lover of Alessandro’s teenage daughter — the best friend of the murdered girl. In a moment notable for its emotional hyperbole, Berger sits with his head in his hands weeping to loud opera music about the death of Francoise. You can always count on Helmut Berger to spice even the most staid proceedings with a generous dash of melodrama, and his small role here is no exception. And, of course, Alessandro’s wife is having an affair with his lawyer, both of whom seem thrilled to get him out of their lives. One common feature of gialli is the complete worthlessness of the police; The Bloodstained Butterfly’s cops are more often concerned with their terrible coffee than solving the case at hand, leading to some well-executed twists and turns.
Picturesque Bergamo, Italy, is the backdrop for this baroque mystery, and we get a sense of the city’s sinister post-war upper class in their expensive villas. Duccio Tessari, mainly known for his spaghetti westerns, brings a deft workman’s touch to The Bloodstained Butterfly, a fascinating and beautiful film at the intersection of several Italian genre traditions.
The Bloodstained Butterfly is streaming on Tubi (free with ads), Prime, and Arrow.