Butterfly (Lengua de las mariposas, La) (1999)

by Tobias Peterson


The Persistence of Memory

Like some overlooked warm-up bout to a heavyweight prize fight, the Spanish Civil War is known more as an immediate precursor to World War II than for its own events, causes, and implications. But even if it was smaller in scope, this “war before the War” was no less brutal and no less tragic in its consequences.

From 1936-1939, Spain (encouraged by financial and military assistance from Fascist Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, among other nations) wrestled with itself over issues of class, politics, and religion. On one side were the Republicans, comprised of the working class, intellectuals, and other leftist sympathizers who defended the fledgling government of the Second Republic of Spain, established just five years earlier. Against them aligned the Nationalists: the upper class, the military, and the Catholic Church, all vehemently opposed to the socialist stance of the Second Republic. The violent, three-year conflict between the two groups physically and spiritually tore apart the fabric of Spanish society and prompted the famous epigraph at the war’s end: “Here lies Spain, killed by its other half.”

cover art

Butterfly (lengua De Las Mariposas, La)

Director: Josi Luis Cuerda
Cast: Fernando Fernan Gomez, Manuel Lozano, Uxia Blanco, Gonzalo Uriarte


Jose Luis Cuerda’s film, Butterfly, mourns the Spain destroyed by civil conflict by remembering it through the enchanted eyes of a small boy. Moncho (played by Manuel Lozano) is just old enough to begin attending public school. The son of the Republican Ramon (Gonzalo Uriarte) and his devout Nationalist wife, Rosa (Uxia Blanco), Moncho is blissfully unaware of the tense, political undercurrent that runs beneath his family and his country. Instead, he is content to while away his days in the idyllic countryside of Galicia, a small town in northern Spain. There he divides his time between following his older brother’s exploits in a local big band and chasing butterflies with his compassionate schoolteacher and mentor Don Gregorio (played by Fernando Fernan Gomez).

Moncho’s happy childhood is represented in a series of back-lit, pastoral episodes that emphasize the wonder of the world around him and the appeal of young Lozano’s enormous brown eyes. Much like the French film Ponette, Butterfly seems initially designed to place its child protagonist in as many adorable situations as possible. To this end, the audience is shown a series of unconnected yet relentlessly charming episodes in Moncho’s life: Moncho runs away from home, Moncho gets into a fight at school, Moncho dances with his childhood sweetheart at the town fair, and so on.

However, Butterfly offers more than a simple Bildungsroman. Based on a collection of short stories by Manuel Rivas entitled ?Qui Me Quieres Amor?, Butterfly includes several smaller stories within the larger narrative of Moncho’s childhood. The characters who populate the film include a local drunk, tormented by the bond between his lover and her dog. While spying on a liaison between the two, Moncho receives his first introduction to human sexuality. The drunk’s jealous temper toward her dog later gives him an introduction to the dark possibilities of human vengeance and wrath. Moreover, the alcoholic’s lover is revealed to be Moncho’s half-sister, the daughter of his father’s previous marriage. On another occasion, Moncho’s brother Andres (Alexis De Los Santos), while touring with his band, falls in love with the mute child- bride of a coarse farmer, and must learn his own difficult lesson about romance.

These narrative digressions, intriguing in their own right, are finally only brief tangents from the main dynamic at work in the film: the relationship between Moncho and Don Gregorio. In addition to nature lessons, Don Gregorio tutors Moncho in literature, theology, and life in general. Through his relationship with his teacher, Moncho opens his eyes to the splendor of the natural order and the mysteries of love. The older man imparts his philosophies to Moncho as a grandfather would, and on one occasion, even manages to save the child’s life during one of Moncho’s asthma attacks.

The beauty of Moncho’s surroundings, his youthful exuberance, and his evolving regard for his mentor weave an idyllic tapestry that is jerked out from underneath the viewer by film’s end. With the start of the Civil War, Nationalist forces take control of the village and {the peaceful life that was Moncho's childhood collapses. Neighbor turns against neighbor, as people try desperately to avoid violent persecution by the forces in power. Not even Moncho's loving family is immune to the Nationalist fervor that grips the village, as they join in a public denunciation of their former friends. The movie's final, tragic moments reveal how the irrational hatred that inspires war can corrupt even the purest hearts and destroy the most sacred of relationships.

Like many films about war, Butterfly is a tale of loss. While no one is actually killed in the film, it is the loss of innocence, for a small boy and an entire country, not the loss of life, that drives the true tragedy of the story. For the Spanish, who emerged from Fascist rule only in 1975 with the death of their dictator Francisco Franco, the Civil War remains a persistent and painful memory. While the sentimental artifice of Butterfly is overstated and its drama heavy- handed, it can be forgiven these indulgences, when the scope of its tragic subject matter is taken into account. This film is not interested in the subtleties and nuances of cinema, but rather in communicating the raw horror of a war whose violent legacy echoes through Spanish history even today.

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