Like its titular namesake, “Butterfly” (the Spanish moniker
was “La lengua de las mariposas,” which led Miramax originally
to announce the American release under the name “Butterfly
Tongues”) has a delicate beauty about it, but its fragility
becomes its ultimate undoing. Jose Luis Cuerda’s film is
based on several stories by Manuel Rivas, and set in Galicia,
the northwestern corner of Spain, in the period preceding the
outbreak of the civil war undertaken by Franco’s fascists
against the republic in 1936. Essentially it’s a coming-of-age
tale centering on shy, asthmatic Moncho (Manuel Lozano), whose
idyllic life with his tailor father (Gonzalo Uriarte), loving
mother (Uxia Blanco) and older brother Andres (Alexis de los
Santos), as well as his close connection with a brilliant,
progressive teacher (Fernando Fernan Gomez), are shattered by
the onset of conflict.

The picture is reminiscent of previous import successes like
“Life Is Beautiful,” which similarly romanticized the affection
between a young boy and an older man (in that case his
protective father, and here the elderly instructor) and which
also pointed to the calamity wrought on ordinary people by
political repression, but while it’s not quite so heavy-
handed as Roberto Benigni’s absurdly overpraised Oscar winner,
it doesn’t begin to match the subtlety of the best films
concerned with such adult-child relationships (the most recent
of which was surely Walter Salles’ remarkable and touching
“Central Station”). Here, while veteran star Fernan Gomez cuts
an imposing figure as the surprisingly kindly and considerate
professor, the background is portrayed as so exaggeratedly
bucolic and picturesque that it loses most of the realistic
quality necessary for the denouement to have dramatic force
(a like problem infected “Life Is Beautiful,” of course). The
Galician countryside is imagined here as sort of a rustic
paradise filled with colorful locals and joie de vivre. Thus
we’re treated to sequences in which the old teacher takes his
young charges on trips into gleaming, glistening fields
(introducing them to the wonders of the coiled tongues of the
butterflies), and a healthy slice of time is devoted to Alexis’
musical career in a travelling band and his first romantic
attraction to a young mute girl. The idea, of course, is
that all this ethereal delight represents the child’s point
of view, and its perfection only accentuates what’s being
lost when cruelty comes on the stage; but the fact that the
background has been painted in such extravagantly overripe
tones actually lessens the impact of the closing events. As
a parable of fascist brutality, “Butterfly” is drawn in such
broad strokes that it comes across as cloying and manipulative
rather than insightful and honest.

It may also be noted that as the young protagonist, Manuel
Lozano brings less to the film than might have been hoped. He’s
just agreeably ordinary, hardly radiating the special charm and
distinction such a role really requires in a child actor. The
other players, with the exception of de los Santos, who gives
Andres a sly likability, are almost immediately forgettable.

There are some lovely individual moments in “Butterfly,”
accentuated by the adept cinematography of Javier Salmones.
But as a whole the film is too predictable to make much of an
impression, and too obvious to touch the heart as deeply as
it clearly aims to do.