Butterfly’s Tongue (La lengua de las mariposas)

Spain (1999) Dir. José Luis Cuerda

It doesn’t really matter how old you are, sometimes nothing can truly prepare you for the harsh realities of what life has in store for us. Based on three short stories – A lingua das bolboretas, Un saxo na néboa and Carmiña – from the anthology Que me queres, amor? by Manuel Rivas, Butterfly’s Tongue subtly explores such a situation.

It’s 1935, one year before the Spanish Civil War, and Republican tailor Ramon (Gonzalo Martin Uriarte) has moved his family – devout wife Rosa (Uxia Blanco), saxophone playing son Andres (Alexis de Los Santos) and seven year-old Moncho (Manuel Lozano) – to a small village in Galicia, northern Spain.

After spending many years at home suffering from asthma, Moncho attends school for the first time, under the tutelage of kindly veteran Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez). Following a rocky start Moncho begins to find his way with Don Gregorio’s guidance, sharing a passion for insect hunting.

There is a case to be made for suggesting that this film is rather plotless and is more a series of vignettes about life’s growing pains, born out of the script’s origins of three individual short stories, but director José Luis Cuerda and co-writer Rafael Azcona have brought them together flawlessly.

But Cuerda makes the very bold or controversial move – depending on your point of view – to introduce the Civil War plot thread late in the final act. For the last ten minutes, the idyllic whimsy of the preceding summer frolics is suddenly replaced by the black cloud of stark reality.

For the most part this is a charming and breezy coming-of-age tale for the two brothers, the youngest earning a valuable education from the gentle senior schoolmaster. But while Don Gregorio is able to win his students and some of the parents over with his convivial manner and sagacious wit, his Republican politics, advocacy of freethinking and atheism put him at odds with certain members of the village.

Of course, young Moncho doesn’t understand any of this but as a slightly precocious child, the freedom of thought maxim very much appeals to him. It even rubs off on brother Andres, who gets a sport in the local band but is told to mime instead; during one show Andres breaks rank mid performance to unleash a flashy sax solo to impress a Chinese girl (Milagros Jiménez) he has fallen for.

The film is seen through Moncho’s viewpoint and everything around is portrayed as a thing of wonder, positive and negative, which he questions with the fervour of a bewitched child. With his friend, the slightly older Roque (Tamar Novas), Moncho learns about “humping”, getting an eye full whilst spying on local lass Carmiña (Elena Fernández) and her lover O-Lis (Guillermo Toledo), unaware of a rather pertinent secret concerning Carmiña.

But it is Don Gregorio’s passion for insects that really opens Moncho’s eyes, the film’s title coming from the startling revelation imparted by the old man of the butterfly’s tasting extremity. Through these nuggets of David Attenborough worthy factoids, Moncho is able to apply them to his own life, including getting a girlfriend in young Aurora (Lara López).

Cuerda keeps the pace and mood very light and amiable, occasionally dipping the light a little to introduce a rare moment of doubt and conflict, but often it is back to the upbeat in a flash. Spain has often been seen as a country synonymous with sun and siestas and this rural period piece does a lot to propagate such an image, the relaxing atmosphere created as the kids run through the bucolic greenery and the splash about in the inviting rivers.

In what is a shocking wake up call for young Moncho, suddenly everything he has known for the past year is turned upside the moment the Civil War is declared – his mother begins burning certain family items at will, Moncho is told to deny an irrefutable truth and Ramon is no longer a Republican. Naturally none of this makes sense but Moncho does what he is told, right up to the final heartbreaking climax of the film.

Again, one might challenge why Cuerda left it so long to drastically change the tone of the story, although a few seeds are sown throughout, but the effect is undeniable; the final moment manages to skilfully encapsulate the destruction of our freedoms and humanity, caused by a simple flipping of a switch inside us all in the name of self-preservation.

Perhaps the intention was not to bludgeon us with political rhetoric favouring one side over the other in a simplistic black and white narrative, that would have been too easy. Instead we are shown how everyone can get along regardless of political allegiance, faith or creed with fear of an imposed will being the devastating wedge driven between a tight knit community.

The elderly influence over the impressionistic child has long been a staple of cinema yet remains a fertile one as this film demonstrates. Veteran Fernando Fernan Gomez was 78 at the time of filming, while his first time co-star Manuel Lozano was only eight. Gomez brings incredible poise and warmth to his avuncular role making the words from his dignified character’s mouth carry great authority.

Lozano is the perfect wide-eyed boy, whose expressions very much reflect our won as his sets about this wondrous yet rocky journey called life. His most enduring moment however comes in the aforementioned final scene, played almost too perfectly for a newcomer. Still acting today, this is a very impressive and endearing debut indeed from Lozano.  

With just the final act carrying any real dramatic weight because of the Spanish Civil War setting chances are some audiences might find Butterfly’s Tongue to be a meandering film with a discordant conclusion. However it is the jarring climax which puts the whole story into perspective to make it such a memorable and affecting viewing experience.