Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Butterfly Tongues, a.k.a. Butterfly, a.k.a. La Lengua de las Mariposas (Canal+ España, Los Producciones del Escorpion, Voz, SGT, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a Spanish production from 1999 alternatively called Butterfly Tongues (an almost literal translation of the original Spanish title, La Lengua de las Mariposas, which would word-for-word translate to “The Tongue of the Butterflies”) or simply Butterfly. The synopsis on imdb.com made it sound like a Spanish version of To Kill a Mockingbird, since it’s told from the point of view of a child (a boy instead of a girl this time), Moncho (Manuel Lozano), and takes place in a small rural town and deals with a family affected by tumultuous events — in this case the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 — that make a direct impact on them. It turned out to be one of those movies that seemed dull at the beginning, as we were being inundated with a whole slough of characters and only slowly being told who they were and what they had to do with each other — but the dramatic design that eventually emerges is that Monchu is growing up in a family with Republican sympathies and he has an older brother, Ramón (Gonzalo Uriarte), who plays saxophone in a band called “Orquesta Azul” — though despite their name they’re a pretty normal Hispanic dance band and there’s nothing particularly “blue” in either the musicological or the emotional sense about their music.

Monchu also gets a friend his own age in Roque (Tamar Novas), but his most important relationship is with his aging and about-to-retire schoolteacher, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who gets him interested in plant and insect collecting and shows him the titular butterflies and their tongues (and gives him a butterfly net with which to catch them himself). It’s a more-or-less idyllic pastoral movie — the characters don’t have automobiles or telephones, but at least some of them have radios, which are their key link to the outside world and the momentous events of the 1931 revolution which brought down the Spanish monarchy and set up the Republic of Spain, and the fascist counterrevolution led by General Francisco Franco which started in 1936 and, with support from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy, took down the Republic and set up the dictatorship which lasted until Franco’s death in 1975 — until the idyll is rudely shattered when the small town in the Spanish province of Galicia where the whole movie takes place is one of the first parts of Spain to fall to Franco and the Falangists (the Spanish fascists and religious Right), whereupon Monchu’s parents burn their Republican poster and books and tell their son to say that they never knew any of the Republican leaders — including Don Gregorio, who’s marked for arrest (and possibly worse) by making an openly Republican speech and doing it in front of an audience containing some fascist true believers.

The peculiar combination of politics that fueled Franco’s movement — old-time Spanish nationalists and monarchists, ideological fascists, the military and the church — certainly has its echoes in America’s modern-day Right, self-consciously cladding itself in the Constitution on one hand and the Bible on the other (last night Roger Hedgecock said on his talk show that the Constitution provides for a government in which all rights come from God — the Constitution actually doesn’t once mention the word “God” and its only references to religion are in the exclusion of religious texts for public office and the First Amendment guarantees against a religious establishment or prohibitions on the free exercise of religion — and that the Constitution also clearly provides for an ultra-limited government that has no right to get involved in the doings of private corporations or the “free” market) and, like the Spanish fascists and nationalists, drawing strict in-the-sand dividing lines between who they consider legitimate parts of the national community and who they don’t.

Butterfly ends with a chilling scene in which a detachment of Franco’s feared Guardia Civil rounds up the town’s (supposed) political enemies, and — craven with fear — Monchu and his family join the crowd watching these people being taken away in a truck and yell insults at them: “Assassin!,” “Atheist!,” “Red!” and other less savory things — and the last thing we see before the color image fades to a brown-toned black-and-white still is Monchu himself yelling “Atheist!” and “Red!” against his (formerly) beloved professor. Had the film, directed by José Luis Cuerda from a script he co-wrote with Rafael Azcona and Manuel Rivas, been closer to the Mockingbird model and done a better job of meshing the personal with the political instead of shifting gears so abruptly in mid-movie, it might have been even better than it is — but that wrenching shift at least serves the purpose of how dramatically political changes can affect even the seemingly most isolated people and communities and underscores the power of the authoritarian state that can lead Monchu publicly to denounce the one adult in the movie who has gone out of his way to be kind and supportive to him. One can’t listen to Right-wing talk radio regularly and not be struck by the similarities between the rhetoric of talk radio and the rhetoric of the fascists (whose preferred medium was also radio — is there something about the disembodied voice from the box that lends itself to this sort of un-nuanced, black-and-white good-guys-and-bad-guys view of the world, while movies and TV, to the extent that they communicate anything ideologically at all, lend themselves to more complexity?), in particular about how they both parse the body politic to determine which members are “worthy” and which are not, and also the way both attribute all bad things that happen to some dark conspiracy or another.