Cuerda? Who is that? When you read about modern cinema from Spain most critics seem to talk of Luis Buñuel, Carlos Saura, Pedro Almodóvar, and Alejandro Amenábar. But rarely do you come across the name José Luis Cuerda in informed discussions on the cinema of Spain. And yet Cuerda’s Butterfly Tongues is one film this critic would recommend, if someone wanted to see a fine movie from Spain. If someone wanted details that give this movie additional credibility: the music in the film is by well-known Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, the lead actor is Fernando Fernán Gómez (a thespian who has appeared in over 200 movies made in the Spanish language and has won the Best Actor award twice at the Berlin film festival and once at the Venice Film Festival), and the original tales on which the movie is based are written by the respected novelist Manuel Rivas.
As you watch the movie unfold, you are reminded of delicate strokes of Ermanno Olmi’s Italian masterpiece The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). A young boy suffering from asthma attacks is scared of attending school because the local school teacher (Fernando Fernán Gómez) appears to be strict and imposing in size, while in reality he is an adorable democrat with fondness for intellectual and social integrity that reminds you of Robin Williams turn in Peter Weir’s endearing US film Dead Poet’s Society (1989). There is even a sequence in Butterfly Tongues when the young boy urinates in the class out of fear reminding viewers of Bertolucci’s Beseiged (1998), where the audience empathized with the fear actress Thandie Newton exhibited of the lawless and brutal Africa in the throes of a un-named political uprising.
Imagine a film that attempts to capture the strengths of Olmi, Weir and Bertolucci and that is what Cuerda presents in this remarkable movie called Butterfly Tongues. What is a butterfly tongue? The good schoolmaster explains the unusual characteristics of a butterfly tongue to his pupils: the butterflies have long tongues that are kept coiled up under their heads, resembling a watch spring. The tongue is like a hollow tube resembling the properties of a straw. The butterfly uncoils this tongue/straw to reach into a flower to drink its nectar.
Cuerda’s film is centred on the development of a 7-year-old boy called Moncho (read, a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly) through his interactions with his teacher. The learning process for the boy is unconventional yet comprehensive with new words learnt, ingested and ingrained in the young mind. Cuerda’s film eventually progresses into a sensitive study of a child having to choose between the love of a parent and the love of a favourite teacher. The resulting emotions are captured by the coiled tongue of the butterfly (read, the young boy) shouting words taught by his teacher, between words he is told by his parent to mouth.
The film can be evaluated as a fascinating study of an ideal teacher-student relationship. It is also a lovely study of teachers who teach without taking un-warranted gifts from parents. The venerable teacher applies unconventional methods to get his boisterous students to keep quiet—he keeps quiet himself and looks out of the window. Soon the students notice this and fall silent by themselves!
Somewhere in the middle of the film there is a lovely battle of wits between the atheist teacher and the local priest which I wish I could reproduce in full. But the film has quite a few comments on atheism and religion—Moncho’s mother is a devout Catholic while Moncho’s father is an atheist. Moncho’s father rubs in his views to his religious wife by pointing out to his wife that the river water was as effective as the “holy water” in curing their child. And it is the devout Catholic mother who eventually vilifies innocent friends and well wishers to protect her own family.
Yes, towards the end of the movie the political perspective of the tale becomes obvious. The dawn of Fascism can be missed out when a drunk kills an innocent dog just because it interferes with his sexual trysts. Much later in the film well-meaning, religious Catholics lead atheist Republican neighbours to their slaughter. That is Spain, 1936.
It would be incorrect to brand this Cuerda film as a political film or even a anti-war film--it is neither. It is a disturbing film if the viewer places himself or herself in the shoes of the 7-year-old Moncho. Would the viewer, if placed in the shoes of Moncha, be a good son and listen to the mother who takes a wrong moral stand for the sake of protecting the family? The end of the film is truly heart wrenching and the words "Butterfly Tongues" take on a new metaphorical meaning if the final 10 minutes of the film is studied closely. The film startlingly echoes dilemmas of two films in its content: Zoltan Fabri’s brilliant Hungarian film The Fifth Seal (1976) and Julia Solomonoff’s Argentinan film Hermanas (Sisters) (2005). The end of Butterfly Tongues can affect different viewers differently but one thing is certain; the film will haunt a sensitive viewer on the moral issues the film presents, long after the movie is over.
The director José Luis Cuerda and his co-scriptwriter Rafael Azcona have adapted three stories written by Manuel Rivas and made them appear as a single tale. Cuerda and Azcona implicitly allow two incidents or subplots that appear somewhat out of place—the killing of a dog (the sole killing in the film) and a brutal possessive husband with a Chinese wife who is treated like a vassal—only to underscore the Fascist tendencies already inherent in the population. Cuerda begins and ends the colour film with black-and-white footage, sandwiching the colourful tale of the 7-year-old’s butterfly years. José Luis Cuerda and his team have made an exquisite film that might appear disjointed but delivers its message with aplomb.