In a strikingly lit sequence in Luis Cuerda’s Spanish-language Butterfly’s Tongue (1999), golden sunbeams sprinkle across a verdant Galician meadow. Eight-year-old Moncho and his young classmates run happily through a copse of trees towards brightly coloured flowers in the foreground. Their elderly teacher Don Gregario (Spanish thespian Fernando Fernán Gómez) shows the boys how “Nature is the most surprising spectacle man can behold.” The boys already know that the secrets of submarines are held in spiders and the wonders of watch springs are under the tongues of butterflies. In turn, Cuerda’s film holds within its scope an astonishing amount of knowledge for the uninformed. It is also a tale from 1936, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War in which Galicia, a poor pastoral land in northwestern Spain was an early buttress of marauding Fascists.
Based on three short stories by Manuel Rivas’s prizewinning collection, Butterfly’s Tongue has an ethnic music score composed by Alejandro Amenábar, director of the masterpiece The Sea Inside (2004).
At the start of the story, Moncho (Manuel Lozano) is the wide-eyed protagonist who loves the meaning his teacher brings to his world. By the end of the film, he is instigated to eschew all that he had loved and held true. “Red!” he shouts, joining his family and other Catholics as they pelt stones at a retreating lorry of arrested Republicans. “Atheist!”
And finally in helpless confusion, behind a mist of smarting, guilty tears Moncho screams, “Tilonorrinco!” at the gentle teacher who taught him the word, rescued him from loneliness and gifted him with what he had valued most till now – a butterfly net and a copy of Treasure Island.
Growing up and losing innocence are fairly weathered themes across the arts, but the treatment of Cuerda’s film is what keeps it topical. Similar to the helix of a butterfly’s tongue, which uncoils itself and, like a straw, draws in the nectar from flowers, Moncho thirstily drinks in real and imaginary mysteries as he listens to poetry, reads of racial differences and learns from his democratic teacher that Hell is not a place which exists – it is created with hate and cruelty, so “we ourselves are hell”.
Although this hell breaks loose at the end of the film, Cuerda is unhurried in telling his story. At the time Moncho first meets his teacher, there are mumblings among the villagers that churches have been burnt in Barcelona, because “Republicans are like that”. We sense high-tension wires humming beneath the carnivals and camaraderie that put the fun into the film. The discordant notes begin to strike us more than the tunes Moncho’s dreamy, lovesick brother Andres (Alexis de los Santos) plays on his saxophone. The Catholic priest tells Don Gregario that schooling is taking Moncho away from his altar boy duties and the terrible killing of a dog by a drunken lout suggests more to come.
In the conversations at home, Moncho’s mother implies that an atheist for a teacher is dangerous for her son – almost as precarious as having an atheist for a husband. Moncho’s father, who reads Republican newspapers and is a member of a left-leaning party, mildly calls his wife, a “mystic” for being so devoutly Catholic. When he buckles under her influence, we recognise he is not mild, but weak.
A tender moment comes early on when the genial Don Gregario comes to Moncho’s house to apologise for the teasing that Moncho has had to endure from his class. Another is after he saves Moncho from an asthmatic attack. But it is when Don Gregario speaks of what he stands for (“Freedom stimulates the spirits of strong men,” and “If we can allow one generation — just one generation to grow up free in Spain … then no one will ever be able to take away their liberty.”), that we recognise him to be more worthy of respect than a well informed, genial old gent.
Don Gregario often speaks of a microscope that is expected from the Ministry of Education. Keeping in mind the movie’s themes, it is significant that the instrument that will help understand the minutest details of insect life never arrives.