Butterfly (La Lengua de las mariposas)
Butterfly (original title: La Lengua de las mariposas) tells the story of a young Galician boy living at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Moncho (Manuel Lozano) has just recovered from a long ilness and is nervous about being sent to school, where he has heard that the teachers hit their students. After a traumatizing first day at school, his teacher, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez) takes him under his wing, making a special effort to visit Moncho’s house and restore the boy’s trust in him and his schoolmates.
Moncho comes of age in this return to the outside world, watching the lives of the adults around him. As he observes these adults with curiosity he learns about sex, violence and even the imperfections of his family’s past when he finds out he has a stepsister from his father’s previous marriage. At school, Don Gregorio teaches Moncho and the other students about nature, which he says is “the most surprising spectacle that man can set his eyes upon.” Encouraging them to pause and observe the natural world, Don Greogorio begins to teach the class outside in the woods nearby, opening up a new microscopic world that fascinates the students. The students are fascinated upon learning that butterflies have spiral tongues that they uncoil to extract honey from flowers.
The beginnings of the Spanish civil war loom, as there is increasing tension with both the authorities and fellow townspeople over the right to express support for the Republic. Going against the church or even talking about such subserive concepts as freedom is increasingly dangerous. Moncho watches from his window as soldiers kidnap people in the night.
When it is clear that the balance of power has shifted in favor of the military, Moncho’s mother swiftly acts to protect the family, burning her husband’s subversive Republican literature, and forcefully inculcating in her children an anti-Republican fervor. They are to forget their father’s Republican past and his friendship with Moncho’s teacher, the freethinking Don Gregorio.
Here begins the film’s culminating moment, mastefully executed and the one that gives the film its emotional and political force. [PLOT SPOILER FOLLOWS] In the town square, subsersives are rounded up and loaded onto army trucks. Moncho’s mother, in a public show of support for the new wielders of power, begins to yell insults at the detainees: “Atheists! Athests!” She prods her husband and children to do the same. Yet they are shattered upon seeing that among the detainees are friends from the village, and most heartrbreaking, Don Gregorio. Shattered and in tears, they continue to hurl insults at the detainees as a matter of survival in Spain’s new political reality.
As the truck sets off, Moncho chases after it, throwing stones at his former teacher yet in a veiled message finally yells the Spanish word for the tongue of the butterfly.
This last scene achieves what director José Luis Cuerda wanted the film to do: make the viewer question the strength of his convictions if he were faced with this situation. What happens to our beliefs when we are threatened with violence? How does the drive for self-preservation affect our deepest bonds with our neighbors in such a context?
It is no wonder that directors like Woody Allen said that at the time of its release, Butterfly was on of the best films to come out in recent years. It is one of Cuerda’s best as either director or producer and certainly one of the best of Spanish cinema.