A movie of unforced nobility and quiet pleasures, "Butterfly" works on all sorts of levels: as a rationale for why good people do bad things, as a condemnation of political movements that forget about the people they're leading, and as a testimony to the value of a good teacher.
Set in the days just before the Spanish Civil War, "Butterfly" unfolds through the eyes of Moncho (Manuel Lozano), a young boy deathly afraid of starting school because he's heard the teacher hits people. One look at Don Gregorio (Spanish actor Fernando FernM-an Gomez) should tell him otherwise, but Moncho remains unconvinced. It's only when Don Gregorio inadvertently shames the boy in front of his classmates (referring to him by his nickname, Sparrow) and then apologizes, that Moncho realizes how lucky he is to have this man for a teacher.
The bond between the two grows even stronger as Don Gregorio urges his students to free their minds and experience the world on their own terms. He urges them to read - Moncho is handed "Treasure Island" - and to let their imaginations travel to faraway places. He takes them on nature walks and shows them how wondrous something as simple as a butterfly can be. And he resists the demands of some parents to teach by intimidation, to force children to memorize their lessons by beating and scolding them. In the hands of Don Gregorio, education is ennobling, not intimidating, and the youngsters in his charge thrive - particularly Moncho, who idolizes the old man.
As a simple parable of the relationship between a boy and his mentor, "Butterfly" would be a wonderful film, featuring a gentle, heart-rending performance from FernM-an Gomez, who's regarded as something of a national treasure in Spain. But director JosM-i Luis Cuerda and screenwriter Rafael Azcona, adapting the short stories of Manuel Rivas, don't stop there. The story takes place in the 1930s, as the Republicans (decried as Communists by their enemies) and Nationalists (inspired by Mussolini's brand of fascism) jockey for power. "Butterfly" becomes a look at how common citizens can live or die thanks to political wrangling.
And that wrangling causes much of the tension in "Butterfly." While his mother is avowedly apolitical, Moncho's father is a devoted Republican, happy for the liberation of the mind that the movement seems to promise. So, too, is Don Gregorio, who sees in the Republicans a chance for intellectual freedom to become the law of the land.
But when the intolerant Nationalists take power, both men pay for their beliefs. Each follows a different path, neither of which makes total sense to Moncho. Having to choose between two men you idolize is tough at any age, but forcing poor Moncho to do so is not only unfair, but tragic.
Starring Fernando FernM-an GM-smez and Manuel Lozano
Directed by Jose Luis Cuerda
Released by Miramax
Rated R (Language, lovemaking)
Running time 95 minutes; (In Spanish, with English subtitles)
Sun score: *** 1/2