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Butterfly (2000)
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by iF Magazine

"Powerful and poignant."
4 stars

THE BUTTERFLY is a story about the amiable bond made between an aging Leftist schoolteacher nearing the end of his career and a 7-year-old boy who is attending school for the first time. The setting is 1936 right before the Spanish Civil War when the citizens were in fear of being caught somewhere in the middle of the ensuing battle between the Fascists on the right and the Republicans (liberals and Communists) on the left; both of whom were maneuvering for the control and future of Spain.

The focus of the film -- directed by Jose Luis Cuerda -- is split between a coming-of-age allegory and a historical political injustice drama. The teacher -- played by Spainís legendary actor Fernando Fernan-Gomez -- is a well-learned, open-minded and compassionate man who becomes both an influence and a friend to the boy (Manuel Lozano). Heís the kind of teacher we only see in movies. He doesnít punish the students, he gives them all good grades, he reads them poetry and he takes them out on field trips to help them appreciate, through all their senses, the natural world.

Itís easy to see why Miramax was attracted to the material because it has a similar feel to CINEMA PARADISO. And although it doesnít have the weepy payoff it too unfolds with a flashback voice-over, which is meant to evoke the days of yesteryear as well as nostalgically highlighting an important period in a countryís history.

Since the film is based on the nostalgia of an innocent boy the filmís style is very sleek and neat. Unfortunately, as conscious as this technique is, it translates into a weakness for the film. The rich, glossy cinematography subverts the power of the film and the stagy art direction feels so stodgy and suffocating that youíre never unaware that youíre watching a movie.

Some of the story too gets annoyingly sappy. Especially a scene where the boy and his older brother (Alexis de los Santos) are traveling and the brother instantly falls in love with an Asian slave whom he somehow dreamed about and drew a picture of before meeting. He catches a glimpse of her for all of a minute and realizes he canít have her, so he ruefully weeps. Itís a sheer Hollywood conceit that feels as false as it is silly because it asks us to weep with the brother when real tragedy, unrelated to his fantasy, is happening all around him.

The Spanish title is LA LENGUA DE LAS MARIPOSAS which literally translates as "The tongue (or language) of the butterfly", which within the context of the film makes a lot more sense than the bastardized U.S. title BUTTERFLY. The Spanish title is metaphorical and has many meanings including a reference to a type of butterfly whose tongue unwinds (hence untangles) itself out long and flat.

If youíre wondering how this all relates to Spain in the '30s itís not easy to pinpoint, but most likely the title transfers more to the concept of "language" than it does to "tongue." Meaning the butterflyís language is beautiful, fleeting and ephemeral. And so maybe was the idyllic concept of Spainís unity and peace through Socialism in the '30s.

The title's direct relation to the story of the teacher and the boy all comes down to a powerfully abrupt last scene. A scene that brings all the principle characters into one place where the Fascists have begun their reign of injustice and terror. Itís a scene that not only denies the film a traditional fourth act but one that shifts the story in such a way as to almost entirely change its meaning. Within the context of the rest of the film, the last scene shifts the film from one that is respectfully mediocre to one that is both powerful and poignant.-- Matt Langdon

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originally posted: 02/24/01 08:32:29
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User Comments

12/05/11 Maddie This was truly beautiful. A little slow-paced, but worth it in the end. 4 stars
8/23/09 Barbara Poignant and beautifully done yet bittersweet and sad 5 stars
6/10/08 Cristina Pardo I love the film. and I wonder to read the book 5 stars
9/26/07 Marius great film 5 stars
6/19/07 Julie Excellent; makes you realize how easy it is to hate someone you don't know. 5 stars
10/13/06 ann anymous wow how painfully predictable. 3 stars
10/26/04 David Beckham I can't stop crying 5 stars
6/01/04 Meh F-Khan 5 stars
5/25/04 Puspa Allamanda A good Spanish movie 5 stars
3/10/02 beth ashbaugh quite touching 4 stars
1/09/02 Terrie Smith Beautifuuly done; interaction between teacher & young lad is charming. Worth seeing. 5 stars
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  13-Jun-2000 (PG-13)



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