Americans who refuse to read subtitles at movies will have to content themselves with mindless special effects with cliché television-styled dialogue, butchered history with mass mayhem, and high school level spoofs of teen slasher flicks during the summer of 2000. Fortunately there are some refuges that screen mature films that assume that the audience has a brain. Usually this means that the film must be made far away from Hollywood.
One such film is La Lengua de las Mariposas (Butterfly) by Spanish director Jose Luis Cuerda. It takes place right after Spain's old order of monarchs and the church have been overthrown, and just before the Spanish Civil War when there is great tension between republicans and fascists in the country. This is the brief shining moment of the Spanish Republic. While most Americans know little of the Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War, it has remained fertile subject matter for Spanish artists, writers, and film directors. Essential to the story is the idea that freedom briefly peeks through the clouds of oppression during these years. Cuerda gives us a very intimate portrait that demonstrates how the people are caught in the middle, and he does so without preaching.
Screenwriter Rafael Azcona artfully weaves three short stories by Manuel Rivas into a poignant narrative that stays with you long after departing the theater. Much of this is due to the universal themes of love, individual search for Truth, and finding a way to live in the practical world, but none of this would have worked without locating memorable characters.
Chief among them is 6 year old Moncho (Manuel Lozano), whose wide-eyed innocence dominates the film. In the beginning he is a quiet, shy boy who doesn't want to go to school. After all, he already knows how to read and he’s heard that the teacher will hit him. Nothing could be further from the truth, as elderly Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez) doesn't even yell at his students when they become unruly. He is a gentle soul that inspires Moncho and the other students to appreciate poetry, to love nature, and to get along with each other. Like the transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly, we see Moncho grow from a frightened child who wets himself the first day of classes, to an enthusiastic young boy who is eager to learn all that he can.
Moncho isn't the only one to become transformed in the story either. In a sub-plot his older brother Andres, capably played by Alexis de los Santos, magically changes from a struggling novice saxophone player who has been told to "fake" his playing into an accomplished soloist. The magic potion? The sight of his first love!
Lest you think that the entire movie is based on lovely sentiments, think again. Well placed patches of humor enliven, like the scene that involves a dog that won't leave his mistress unprotected when a lustful lover appears, or the humorous conversations that Mondo has with his brother and mother. For example, Mondo asks his ultra-religious mother if his dad is an atheist since he curses God. Another time Mondo's father puts things into perspective by reminding his wife that the river water worked as well as "holy" water when it cures their son from an asthma attack. This is no farce, and no absurd Amoldovar-style characters appear, though I was reminded of Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex during the dog scene.
Butterfly displays a great many charms with deceptive simplicity. Veteran actor Fernando Gomez and young Manuel Lozano play their roles perfectly. Gomez is sincerely giving and selfless in his role as the teacher who wants nothing more than to open up his students’ hearts to learning and to life. While generally guarded about his personal life, he does open up a bit when Mondo asks about the picture of Don Gregorio's former wife, who had passed away at the young age of 22. He explains his loneliness by quoting a portion of a poem, "An abandoned bed, a cloudy mirror, and an empty heart." Credit the screenwriter for the simplicity and credit Gomez for not over sentimentalizing the moment.
On the other hand, Lozano shows that an inexperienced six-year-old actor can carry a film on his shoulders with the backing of an able director and strong leading actor. Young Lozano reminds very much of the young boy in Cinema Paradiso for his love of learning and also of the young boy in The Bicycle Thief for his loss of innocence.
These two ideas run through the film even when they may seem as hidden as the tongue of the butterfly. We grow to really appreciate the various characters, and how the political climate touches their lives. While some people like Mondo's father and teacher seek freedom and truth, others seek the comforts and traditions of the past, and some simply seek to survive another day. Without witnessing actual warfare, the film exposes the conflict's emotional core. And in the center lies a six-year old boy to win us over.
A devastating emotional ending to this film accompanies a freeze frame that is nearly as moving as the finale in Truffaut's The 400 Blows. I'm not going to give this away. It's revisited me several times immediately after seeing the film, and continues to cause flashbacks on occasion. Let me just say that the ending is very powerful, poignant, and thought provoking--definitely worth reading the subtitles to get there.