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Butterfly (original title: La lengua de las mariposas) is a lovely little gem of a movie, taking a bittersweet look through a child’s eyes at life in a small town at the beginning of the Spanish civil war.

It’s 1938, and Spain is in a difficult transitional period. After many bloody struggles and abortive attempts at various republics and returns of the monarchy, freedom is in the air with the new republic. But not everyone is pleased with the democracy, and there are uneasy undercurrents of fascism as some, especially the military, the Church, and the powerful landowners, want a return to a more repressive government. But for little Moncho (Manuel Lozano), all of this is no more than a shadow over some of the adults in his life. His concerns are the ordinary ones of a little boy: his first day of school, making friends, and tagging along after his older brother. Without him realizing it, however, his growing friendship with the elderly schoolteacher (Fernando Fernán Gómez) has the potential to change his life profoundly. Butterfly is beautifully shot, capturing the perspective of a child who doesn’t understand the momentous events surrounding him, but who is nonetheless profoundly influenced by them.

The film has a very novelistic feel to it: rather than progressing through a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end, it is more like a slice of life. To a great degree, this is what gives Butterfly its strength, as the ending of the story remains quite open, resisting a tidy Hollywood-style conclusion. In the question of the fascists versus the republicans, director José Luis Cuerda does clearly take sides, but he manages to do so without being heavy-handed. The characters have been drawn both realistically and sympathetically, so the confrontation of the film between the opposing ideologies leads viewers to difficult questions: how can people behave this way? How can neighbours and friends turn on each other?

I’ve described the tone of the movie as “bittersweet,” though I’m not sure this does justice to the interesting shift of moods in Butterfly. Much of the film is happy and light, looking at Moncho and his life; it becomes much darker in the last part of the film as the Spanish civil war closes in. But far from being an irregularity in tone, this highlights the tragic nature of the war, as a shadow cast across the lives of young people who otherwise could have grown up in freedom and maybe shaped a very different Spain.

It’s worth noting that the film’s R rating is based on one single scene of sensuality/nudity. Realistically speaking, it’s a movie that is perfectly appropriate for teenagers and older children, and with its thought-provoking theme, it merits being watched and appreciated by the whole family.

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced, Butterfly is a visually very attractive film. The colour palette is quiet but effective, creating a beautiful visual experience by richness of shading and subtlety of tones. There’s no edge enhancement in evidence, and the picture overall is clean and free of noise or picture flaws.

The soundtrack is available in the original Dolby 5.1 Spanish, or in a dubbed French Dolby 2.0. The Spanish-language track has a very clean, clear sound overall, with dialogue always distinctive even at low volumes. The surround sound is handled very well: while there’s no need for special surround effects, the entire audio experience is very immersive. Music is likewise handled well, integrated into the soundtrack in a nice balance with the dialogue.

I was very pleased to see that Butterfly features optional English subtitles; this is always a feature that’s appreciated by those who want to enjoy the experience of the film in its original language without the subtitles intruding.

The DVD has a brief text introduction in the credits that explains some of the background to the Spanish civil war; as it’s in English, it looks like something that’s been added for the R1 release. In any case, it’s a useful addition that provides some helpful context for viewers who may not be familiar with Spanish history.

Butterfly is an exceedingly well-crafted film, a challenging film, and one that’s highly memorable. With an excellent DVD transfer, it’s a film that should be put at the top of your “to buy” list.