Monday Movie: Butterfly, by David Bax
For an American high school student (twenty years ago, at least), European history classes generally cover only the pre-1776 years. That means massively important, early twentieth century events like the Spanish Civil War are left out altogether. Luckily, we have the movies. Various works of cinema over the years have filled in the gaps left by my schooling but perhaps none has been so informative as José Luis Cuerda’s Butterfly. Though it doesn’t spend much time at all on the war itself, it manages to convey much about the country’s domestic, day-to-day politics that led to it. It also happens to be devastatingly emotional.
In a way Cuerda’s film is a contemporary of the highly praised wave of Iranian films that were being made around the same time. Like Majid Majidi’s The Color of Paradise or Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses, Cuerda the more innocent, more digestible point of view of children to describe the state of a nation. Butterfly tells the tale of Moncho (Manuel Lozano), a young boy who befriends his aging schoolteacher, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who teaches him about the natural world, including the butterfly. Gregorio, though, is a Republican and, therefore, a target of the Nationalist rebels. Despite having a Republican father, Moncho’s friendship with the old teacher becomes increasingly fraught as the Nationalists begin to round up and cart away known Republicans.
Moncho’s father and Gregorio have different responses to the growing threat but Cuerda centers his film’s tension on Moncho and how he navigates the different examples set by his two male role models. Butterfly climaxes in a crushing illustration of the need to survive overpowering one’s ideals while also challenging the viewer to examine how they might have behaved.