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Fragile Beauty in 'Butterfly'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2000


    'Butterfly' Manuel Lozano and Fernando Fernan Gomez (Paramount Classics)
"Butterfly" tells two stories simultaneously but tells both as if they were one. Set in Spain in the early 1930s, it's on one level the tale of a sensitive, asthmatic boy named Moncho (Manuel Lozano) and his friendship with kindly old schoolteacher Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez). On another level, it's the saga of a dysfunctional country caught during a brief flicker of freedom between the fall of King Alfonso (1931) and the beginning of civil war (1936).

What director/producer Jose Luis Cuerda understands, however, is that all politics is personal, or at least had better be when it comes to moviemaking. Based on a collection of short stories by writer Manuel Rivas, the film works because its heart is a human, not ideological, one. Its drama of beauty and love and betrayal as viewed through the eyes of a young boy succeeds because it relegates the arguments about fascism vs. republicanism to the background, where grown-ups whisper in bars and their self-serving behavior is not always understood.

As the avuncular but openly atheist Don Gregorio, Gomez is a quiet delight. The actor – an Armin Mueller-Stahl look-alike, but without the German actor's tartness – has the kind of presence that draws attention even when he isn't doing anything. That Moncho sees something in that kind, wise, sad face and learns to trust it is no surprise.

On the surface, at least, and for most of its running time, "Butterfly" is an apparently uneventful movie. After Don Gregorio saves Moncho from a respiratory attack, the boy's father (Gonzalo Uriarte) – the town tailor and, like Don Gregorio, a republican sympathizer – rewards the old man with a new suit. Moncho's brother Andres (Alexis de los Santos) joins a local band and discovers unrequited love while on a road trip to a neighboring village. Moncho himself experiences his first kiss, courtesy of little Aurora (Lara Lopez), then learns about how adults make love while peeping at the neighbors with his pal Roque (Tamar Novas).

This is the stuff of childhood, and Cuerda spins its languid thread with the sleepy, summer rhythm of "To Kill a Mockingbird," another film that saves its punch – and its hard lessons – for the end. Like that earlier film, in which racism and injustice seep out in the second half, filtered through the dim perceptions of youth, "Butterfly" too turns ugly at the eleventh hour. As the military, the right wing and the clergy – who have been percolating with discontent throughout the film – rise up to denounce the town's pro-republican faction, Moncho gets his first taste of the moral compromises grown-ups make to save their own hides.

The film's climax was only one of several moments that left me utterly verklempt, without ever knowing that my buttons were being pushed. That's not easy to do these days, but Cuerda's charming, achingly beautiful "Butterfly" did it over and over, almost like magic.

BUTTERFLY (R, 97 minutes) – Contains partial nudity, some obscenity and a disturbing scene of violence toward a dog. In Spanish with English subtitles.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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