Published Jun 01, 2000You'd think that the turbulent beginnings of the Spanish civil war would inspire a gripping, passionate film, but in the case of Butterfly, directed by Jose Luis Cuerda, it has produced a respectable film that sort of meanders its way to a bitterly poignant ending. It takes place in 1936 in the province of Galicia, where the fault lines between the communists and the fascists were beginning to show themselves and create divisions amongst families and friends. The spine of the story concerns a frail, asthmatic boy named Moncho (Manuel Lozano), who dreads his first day of school, having heard that most teachers beat their students for even the tiniest infractions. Luckily, his teacher is a kind old soul named Don Gregorio (veteran Spanish actor Fernando Fernan Gomez), who takes Moncho under his wing and protects him from the teasing cruelty of the other students. Don Gregorio is only a communist in the loosest sense of the word. He's basically a liberal who takes a pacifist approach to discipline (he quietly gazes out the window until his rambunctious class calms down), and he takes his pupils on outdoor excursions to encourage them to appreciate the natural world.
There's a curious lack of focus in this film that may stem from the fact that the screenplay was adapted from several short stories (written by Manuel Rivas). In some ways this helps the film avoid the trap of becoming too politically literal. The discussions of left or right wing allegiances weave their way through the narrative, remaining on the margins of the action, so the movie is thankfully devoid of heavy exposition and diatribes. This gentle approach to thematic subtext becomes a problem, however, when you realise that the drama of the film doesn't fully invest itself in anything. The "young boy and his surrogate father" relationship is the kind of thing that European films usually pull off with great aplomb, but Moncho and Don Gregorio have only a tenuous bond. Also, the divided loyalties in the family (the father supports the Republican government, and the mother is Catholic traditionalist), barely cause a ripple of tension.
I could see where all of this was all going to end up, long before the fascists actually rolled into town, and although I'll admit I had a lump in my throat when little Moncho had to choose sides, I still don't think Butterfly did justice to its subject matter.