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MOVIE REVIEW – Butterfly

In Spanish with English subtitles.
Spanish title: La lengua de las mariposas (the butterfly's tongue)

Director: José Luis Cuerda

Rating ***

Yet another coming-of-age tale starring an adorable schoolboy, this 1999 film is based on the short stories of Manuel Rivas, collected as Que Me Quieres, Amor. It stars a Spanish John Gielgud – Fernando Fernan Gomez – as the enlightened old teacher, Don Gregorio. His star student, seven-year-old Moncho (Manuel Lozano), greedily absorbs every ounce of what he's taught, especially poetry and nature.

The place is Galicia in northwestern Spain. The year is 1936. The moment is the calm before the Franco storm that crushes the fledgling Spanish republic. And in the eye of the storm is Moncho's tiny, placid village beside a stream where women scrub the laundry and where love blooms among the wildflowers. Every scene in the movie is like a Diego Velásquez painting: dark rooms and dark clothing slashed with white and bright colors; rich skin tones punctuated by plays of light and shadow; dense forests lit up with dappled sunlight or cool moonlight.

After Moncho's first disastrous day at school, Don Gregorio comes calling at his house and coaxes the lad back to class. In the pandemonium of the classroom, which in the summertime moves outside, Moncho manages to learn a lot about life, religion and politics by sticking close to Don Gregorio's side. And the boy clearly lights up the old man's lonely life. Together, they chase butterflies, capture bugs and share Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

Moncho's modest home gleams with dark woods and is trimmed with neat rows of lace on the shelves. His father, a tailor, plies his trade in the house, while his mother looks after the meals and other caretaking jobs. The teacher's house is equally dark, but its walls are lined with books. On a road trip with the band that Moncho and his brother join, we see other homes and other villages. In one place, they overnight with a farmer whose animals live in the house with him and his child bride. Elsewhere, we encounter various sybaritic festivals and enchanting customs.

The movie's charming wood sprites, however, turn ugly at its heartbreaking end. Neighbors who played and wept together, drank together, worshipped together and partied together turn against each other to save their own lives. Even Moncho is coerced into denouncing his beloved Don Gregorio. The final, appalling scenes reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's thoughts after witnessing the Spanish Civil War: "They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason."