96 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, June 23, 2000 (SF)
Directed by Jose Luis Cuerda
Starring Fernando Fernan Gomez, Manuel Lozano, Uxia Blanco, Gonzalo, Martin Uriarte, Alexis de los Santos & Guillermo Toledo
Worrisome boy's budding sense of freedom is a victim of Spanish Civil War in charming, gripping 'Butterfly'
A compelling marriage of innocence and intellectualism, "The Butterfly" views the see-sawing political upheaval of 1936 Spain through the life of a worrisome, bookish little boy.
Our young hero -- an asthmatic tailor's son named Moncho (Manuel Lozano) -- becomes fascinated by learning through his affectionate tutelage under an old schoolmaster (legendary Spanish thespian Fernando Fernan Gomez, "The Grandfather," "Belle Epoque"), whose involvement in humanitarian causes and whose open eschewment of the church put him in the crosshairs of the right-wingers critical of the precarious current government.
But, understandably, Moncho is more interested in playing in the fields near his village and learning about life and nature from his mentor than he is in the freedom newly tasted by revolutionary republicans like his teacher and cautiously activist parents (played with tenderness and depth by Uxia Blanco and Gonzalo Uriarte). He takes only minor notice of the way fear and paranoia about losing their newly won rights is a constant topic of conversation among the grown-ups around him.
With director Jose Luis Cuerda's mix of carefree sweetness and foreboding political undercurrent, "The Butterfly" feels intentionally like a children's movie hijacked by the loss of innocence that eventually grips Moncho. The political winds change and the boy sees everyone he cares about land in grave danger, forced to chose between persecution and painful, shameful denouncement of their ideology.
Giving the film a rich period atmosphere, Cuerda lingers longer than necessary on some of the story's incidentals, like the time Moncho spends as the mascot of a traveling orchestra that has taken his sax-playing teenage brother (Alexis de los Santos) under its wing. But he also slips powerful symbolism into such episodes, and even when the film seems to stall momentarily there's always the memorable performances of compassionate Gomez and fretful little Lozano to focus on.
As the sickly Moncho's heath improves, Lozano portrays with appropriate aplomb his hunger for learning, his taste for adventure, and even his interest in a pretty little girl.
But the boy's intellectual and social awakening comes at a price, and the little actor shows just the right mix of fear and confusion as Moncho begins to understand that freedom and happiness are being yanked away from his family and his community as the revolution backlash comes.
A skilled, moving picture full of kind of emotional truth only a child can see, "The Butterfly" does dawdle at times, but any of its minor shortcomings are forgotten in the gripping and heartbreaking conclusion that burns on the brain the trampling of liberty that washed over Spain as the Fascist government rose to power.