La lengua de las mariposas (1999)

reviewed by
Jon Popick

"We Put the SIN in Cinema"

I'm generally pretty bored with films that are described as `coming of age' pictures. Words like `moving,' `touching,' and `emotional' are usually thrown in for good measure, and each seems like a red flag for both sappy content and predictable, linear stories.

Thankfully, José Luis Cuerda's The Butterfly is still an exceptionally enjoyable film, despite being all of the things listed above. The film is about the relationship between a young boy and his teacher, and it's set in mid-‘30s Spain during the country's transition from a monarchy to a republic.

Moncho (Manuel Lozano, in his film debut) is a young boy who has been taught at home by his tailor father Ramón (Gonzalo M. Uriarte) because he's asthmatic. On the eve of his first day of public school, Moncho's older brother Andrés (Alexis de los Santos, also in his debut) horrifies the young boy with tales of the beatings he's taken from his teachers over the years. So it's no surprise when Moncho pisses his pants the following morning, just because his old, craggy teacher, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez, The Grandfather), asked him what his name was.

Of course, Don Gregorio turns out to be a really nice guy. He and Moncho form a special bond (but not like the usual kind between priests and young boys, or even Boy Scout leaders and young boys), and both share an interest in nature. At first I was worried, because the last old Don that hung around outside this much keeled over in a tomato garden with an orange in his mouth. But nothing like that happens here. Don Gregorio is an old softie and appears to be the first hippie teacher - a precursor to the tie-dyed David van Dreesen from Beavis & Butt-Head.

The rest of The Butterfly is rife with the undercurrent of Spain's political upheaval, and there are subplots involving Andrés' invitation to play the saxophone with a touring band and the town whore. The film is actually based on three short stories written by Manuel Rivas in "Que Me Quieres, Amor' and was adapted by Rafael Azcona.

In addition to being beautifully photographed by Javier G. Salmones (Twice Upon A Yesterday), The Butterfly features terrific performances by the young first-timer Uriarte and the rubber-faced Gómez, the latter of whom could pass himself off as the Spanish Walter Matthau. Directed by José Luis Cuerda, The Butterfly was nominated for thirteen Goya Awards (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar). It only took home one trophy (for Best Screenplay) but would have swept everything if it weren't for a little film called All About My Mother.

Previously titled The Butterfly's Tongue (taken from the Spanish title La Lengua de las Mariposas), The Butterfly might seem like something you may want to expose your kids to, what with the cool combination of uplifting story and political education. But parents, beware: The film has a pretty graphic sex scene, features perky schoolgirls swimming without tops and, for good measure, even throws in a scene where a dog is cooked on a spit. I screened the film as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival and saw some poor mother ushering her kid out of the theatre during all of the parts that could permanently scar the impressionable brain of her child. She must have been pretty tired when the credits finally rolled.

1:35 - R for nudity and strong sexual content

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