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Thread: BUTTERFLY from Spain

  1. #1
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    BUTTERFLY from Spain

    Our local film group’s film this week is BUTTERFLY. Here is a passout I prepare for those who come. It is not strictly a review -- more like a bit of background to help with an understanding of the film:

    BUTTERFLY
    LA LENGUA DE LAS MARIPOSAS
    (Literal Translation: The Tongue of the Butterfly)
    (Spain, 1999) 96 mins.
    Directed by José Luis Cuerda
    Spanish with Easy to Read Subtitles

    One of the most satisfying and important reasons why foreign films are so valuable to me is that they provide a way of entering another world from within — allowing us to see from the inside as the natives in that culture see. Never was this more true than with José Luis Cuerda’s BUTTERFLY (literal title: La Lengua de las mariposas — “The Tongue of the Butterfly”). The caveat here is that this also requires more effort, not just in reading subtitles, but in seeking out background.

    When we see an American movie we draw upon a vast cultural knowledge, some of which is even missed in other English language countries. A film about our own Civil War, for example, can assume audience familiarity with a large number of people, places, customs, and events. But especially as the years pass, Americans have a much leaner grasp of events in individual European countries. For many of us the Spanish Civil War is a vague conflict that resulted in four decades of dictatorial power under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The events leading up to these three terrible years are lost in distance and time.

    By the third decade of the twentieth century, the Spanish people had been living under despotic regimes for many years. King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941) had been declared king upon his birth, and ruled under the regency of his Austrian mother until shortly after the turn of the century. His training was associated chiefly with the military, and his governance was correspondingly severe. Following the First World War, he relinquished increasing control to military leaders, resulting in heavy-handed dictatorship.

    Meanwhile, amidst increasing international awareness, Spain was divided, not just into two camps, but along many conflicting ideological pathways. Common working and farming class peoples dreamed of taking a more significant role — of democratic freedoms. They could not, however, agree on a single course, and splintered into a wide range of parties. They emerged as anarchists, socialists, and communists. On the right, there were the wealthy classes who tended to side with the military, and influenced by the success of Mussolini and Hitler, the fascists. A further complication came from the Catholic Church, which had always maintained a unique importance in Spain. The church was uncomfortable with both right and left, but because of a special aversion to communism, tended toward the right.

    Finally, in 1931, the military dictatorship was overcome, and the Spanish Republic was declared. King Alfonso having abdicated his rights to his third son, Juan, left the country. The experiment with democratic freedoms was in turmoil from the outset. Various coalition governments were formed, but short-lived. Finally, in response to mutual assassinations, a full-blown Civil War broke out on July 17, 1936. It was to be a bloody war with international participation (Italy and Germany on the right, and the Soviet Union on the left). Both sides would engage in mass arrests and executions in the name of anticommunism or antifascism.

    Like a butterfly’s tongue, all of these factors are coiled up within the characters, waiting for the moment to spring forth. The events in BUTTERFLY cover an approximately six month period preceding this terrible war. The canvas is a collection of personal stories unfolding in a tiny little village in Galicia, a poor farming region between the Basque country and Portugal in northwestern Spain. Galicia was to become one of the early strongholds of the military fascists. Yet even here, the political unrest permeates the atmosphere, and ideological alignment underscores life for many of the characters.

    The formation of the Republic was a dream for men like Ramón, Moncho’s father (Gonzalo Uriarte). A tailor, he is a proud Republican, inspired for the first time in his life with a role in government for working men.

    On one level this is the story of a six year old boy(Manuel Lozano), who is eased into a love of learning by Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez), a principled and kind elderly teacher. Gregorio gently helps young Moncho overcome the teasing of the other children who had overheard his mother refer to him as a “Little Sparrow.” Soon Moncho learns the stories about being beaten by the teacher are not true with Gregorio. The grandfatherly don introduces the boy to the wonders of nature and provides two important gifts, a copy of Treasure Island and a butterfly net. Their mutual joy in learning is eventually jolted by a biting denouement, but along the way an important seed is sown.

    Don Gregorio, himself a principled Republican, has fervently placed his hopes on the survival of a democratic government. At his retirement he proudly declares:

    If we can allow one generation — just one generation to grow up free in Spain … then no one will ever be able to take away their liberty.

    There are, however, other viewpoints in this village — powerful enemies of democratic reforms are in the wealthy classes. These landed gentry are represented by Don Avelino (Jesús Castejón), the arrogant father of one of Moncho’s classmates. Avelino is clearly used to having his own way, and uses his association with the militia.

    Ramón calls Moncho’s mother (Uxía Blanco) a “mystic.” She is a devout Catholic who worries that Don Gregorio, whom she suspects is an atheist, does not provide sufficient deference to religious principles. The priest also accosts the kindly teacher because Moncho has taken less interest in his altar boy training.

    The first time I saw BUTTERFLY, I was taken by the charm not only of the relationship between the teacher and Moncho, but by a myriad of other wonderful personal stories that make up the film. I did not fully appreciate the film’s depth and the significance of its ending, however, until I learned more about those turbulent years in Spain that had captivated so many American writers for the generation before my own. The research was worth it, and I really do believe allowed me a glimpse into the world of rural Galicia in those tragic times — a glimpse that is unfortunately missed by most Americans, whose own culture is becoming increasingly self-satisfied and insular.

    —docraven, December 2002

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
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    Ottawa Canada
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    and the film wurld Pulitzer Prize goes to...

    Wow. Great synopsis, doc. This is why I go to this site every freakin' day. Needless to say, I'll be checking out "Butterfly".
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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