The 1930s were a turbulent decade for Spain. The monarchy fell in 1931, and the ensuing years saw a Republican government in power (viewed by some as communists), with fascist nationalists opposing them, each vying for public favor.
In the midst of this — 1936, to be exact — is when “Butterfly” takes place, showing the effects of the political turmoil on a picturesque little village.
At the center is young Moncho (Manuel Lozano), who is befriended by a kindly schoolteacher named Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez). He teaches Moncho lots of philosophical things, like that there’s no such thing as “hell”: “Hate and cruelty are hell,” he says, as the two look for beautiful butterflies and other creatures of the meadow.
He’s also a good teacher, educating his students (and me) in the fact that potatoes and corn did not exist in Spain until Columbus brought them back from the Americas. Huh.
Things heat up politically, and everyone has to choose their sides. History tells us that it’s the Republicans who lose — which means Moncho’s dad (Gonzalo Uriarte) and Don Gregorio have to either stick to their ideologies, or go with the nationalist flow and save themselves.
For the most part, “Butterfly” is a charming, pleasant coming-of-age story, well-acted all the way around. There are poignant moments with Moncho’s older brother, Andres (Alexis de los Santos), and his yearning for a mute married woman.
Moncho and Don Gregorio, too, are a wistful pair, though the film does over-do the “mentor/student” thing a bit, offering little new to the whole “Dead Poet’s Society” genre. Much of Don Gregorio’s philosophizing is portentous and hollow; his “hate and cruelty are hell” statement winds up being the film’s theme. It’s a well-developed theme, and the excellent, bittersweet finale helps, but you can’t shake the feeling that the film winds up being not nearly as deep as it pretended it was going to be.
B (; )