l Directed by Jose Luis Cuerda
l Stars Manuel Lozano, Fernando, Fernan Gomez
l Rated R
l Opens June 30
A nostalgia piece set in the mid-'30s before fascist rule party-crashed Spain's golden days, Butterfly concerns a precocious, adorably doe-eyed boy and his encounters with sex, war, entomology, a beloved teacher, adult malfeasance and all the eclectic discoveries of childhood. Directed by Jose Luis Cuerda, the film takes its name from one of the principal fixations of 7-year-old Moncho (Manuel Lozano): the story his doddering, kindly teacher Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez) tells him of the butterfly's curled tongue used for reaching nectar. Since this mythic coiled tongue is visible only with a microscope and the village school cannot afford the fancy gadget, the insect appendage becomes a symbol of all those rare and hidden mysteries that tantalize inquisitive 7-year-olds.
Moncho is a sensitive, bright boy with a tailor father and a religious-fanatic mother, who hands him over to the schoolteacher on the first day of school with the warning that he's "a sparrow out of the nest for the first time." Moncho sits at his wooden desk clutching an enormous asthma inhaler, a device that initially seems meant to form an instantaneous audience affection for the adorable runt. Butterfly is -- as such devices indicate -- nothing if not transparent. When Don Gregorio starts in with the Big Ideas about the equality of all people and touchy-feely insights about how Hell is what people create on Earth, we know there's trouble on the horizon for this gentle but dangerously free-thinking teacher.
Butterfly is thus the kind of lyrical, dreamy film that strives to capture the impressionistic wonder of childhood. Fearful that such an objective might make it appear lightweight, the filmmaker weaves in some unsavory and political matters to keep more jaded adult attention spans engrossed. One example is a subplot in which Moncho and his classmates witness the ill-fated sexual trysts between a braggart farm boy and a slatternly country girl.
Besides the occasional intrusion of such seediness in an otherwise aggressively saccharine, ethereal story, the film's greatest handicap is its promiscuous approach to storytelling. The film moves from incident to incident at warp speed. One minute Mon and his brother Andres (Alexis de los Santos) are approached in their village street and asked to join the local ramshackle dance band, and the next minute they're performing at the yearly village bacchanalia. The next minute they're on the road, staying with a coarse stable owner with a beautiful Chinese wife who, in the spare-no-detail scheme of things, we're told was attacked by wolves when she was 4. Every incident is an opportunity for another digression, and there are stories upon stories upon stories in Butterfly.
To be certain, this gallivanting structure and syncopated rhythm can mimic the sensation-overload of childhood. But approximating the vantage of childhood seems less relevant here than the director's desire to stuff details down our throat like a force-fed goose on its way to the pâté factory.
A storyline that haunts the film's background -- of the political instability of 1936 Spain -- seems at first glance just another onerous detail, some period flourish thrown into the brew. But politics eventually move from backstory to center stage and take on a shocking, sudden importance in the film's conclusion -- a disturbing, ugly turn of events that complicates all the sweetness and light of the preceding hour and makes one wonder how such radically different films managed to get so clumsily stitched together. u