Review of Butterfly

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Butterfly is a beautiful heartbreaker. But it's impossible not to be seduced by it, even knowing that the payoff's going to hurt. This tale of the days leading up to the Spanish Civil War shows how suddenly the world can bloom with wonder for the young, and how quickly tyranny and cowardice can render that wonder obsolete.

Moncho, played by an inspired little actor named Manuel Lozano, is a 7-year-old boy starting school in the Republic of Spain in 1936, where the democratic government is barely keeping its internal enemies, the Mussolini-inspired Fascists, at bay. There's an air of menace under the idyllic, sensual surface of Moncho's picturesque village in the Galicia region.

But when Butterfly (originally titled La Lengua de las Mariposas, or The Butterfly's Tongue) takes off, politics seem a distant factor in Moncho's life. His terror at going to school is compounded by asthma. And his older brother Andres (Alexis de los Santos) insists that the teacher, Don Gregorio, beats his students routinely.

Don Gregorio turns out instead to be an elderly man of great kindness and intelligence, played by the quietly magnetic Fernando Fernan Gomez (Belle Epoque, All About My Mother).

Moncho's vulnerability - he wets his pants on the first day of class - prompts Don Gregorio to give the youngster special affection and protection, and after the initial dread, school becomes a revelation to Moncho. He learns to read and treasure books, where "our dreams take refuge so as not to freeze to death," as Don Gregorio puts it.

Moncho's friendship with his teacher becomes his guiding force, and he seems to find his calling in a fascination with nature.

Meanwhile, his brother and his new school friends teach him about life's darker and sexier aspects; Butterfly is decidedly a movie about children, but not for them.

Director Jose Luis Cuerda skillfully dramatizes the amazement of learning, and, as we get caught up in Moncho's expanding world, we may forget about the political sphere contracting around him. But his parents, grimly and brilliantly played by Gonzalo Uriarte and Uxia Blanco, know what must be done for the family to survive the coming upheaval.

The script was adapted by Rafael Azcona from three stories by prizewinning contemporary Spanish writer Manuel Rivas, whose works are hard to find in English translation. But if the film is any approximation, Mr. Rivas' must be extraordinary prose indeed. Butterfly, has a powerful sting, but an abundance of sublime nectar as well.