Keeping suspense through a story that we know the ending of is no small feat. Audiences familiar with the Spanish Civil War know that the defenders of the country's fledgling republic became factionalized almost beyond belief. Their division led not only to political instability, and aided Franco's victory, but also contributed to mayhem, treachery and horror as Goya might have conceived. As the forces of the right devoured those of the left, and as the left devoured itself, Spain was plunged into madness. So many rival interests on both sides of the political spectrum asserted themselves in the years from 1936 to 1939-all of them with varying, but deep, resentments-that millions of Spaniards found it impossible to navigate the ideological storm. More than three percent of the country's citizens died as a result of hostilities.
Jos Luis Cuerda's film The Butterfly is set in a Spanish village in 1936, right before major confrontations take place. We can expect going in that the movie will end with the advent of war; the questions remaining are how Cuerda will bring that off, and what it will mean. Not every action in his film forms a sure causal line to warfare, and not every evil is expressly political. The Butterfly sketches a picture of normalcy, but one that is disturbed from the start by clerics bristling at secular schooling, military horsemen bringing a tremble to townsfolk, and simpler, age-old desires to do meanness to your neighbor. It's a combination of a historical counterrevolution, and something rotten in humanity, that imperils this village's trial with democracy, the director insinuates.
Save for the benefit of hindsight, for most of the movie's duration you might never suspect that a gruesome war is going to sweep through this region. The film's Cinemascope images of quiet streets and verdant countryside reinforce the impression of an encompassing tranquility. The story pivots on the first year of school of a shy young boy, Moncho (Ma˜uel Lozano). He's taken under the wing of his aging teacher, Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernán Gžmez). There are clear touches of Philippe Noiret's character from Cinema Paradiso built into Gregorio-they mentor a youngster, look alike, and each melts beneath his grizzle-but Gžmez possesses altogether greater moral rigor and intellectual focus than Noiret could muster. Gregorio detects Moncho's sensitivity right away, and turns him toward studying the fields and streams of nature that surround the village.
The sense of security wrapping around the town will be literally obliterated by the end; the last images are of stones hurled angrily across the entire frame. But the feeling of safety is gradually chipped away over the course of the plot, almost unnoticeably. A priest grumbles to Gregorio about the dubious virtues of teaching children outside the sphere of the Church. Their debate ends in the most civilized terms, by exchanging Latin quotations. A socialist merchant argues with his devout wife about his pamphleteering activities, as though they were quibbling over a domestic propriety. One parent adamantly doesn't like the flexible and democratic terms of Gregorio's classroom, or the high place of poetry and creative interpretation in it. Less principled quarrels slowly stir as well. A hothead Don Juan hits the hay with a local beauty, but there's one comical quirk of her lovemaking that he will not stand for. Covertly and maliciously, he puts an end to it.
As in Cinema Paradiso, many of the townsfolk resemble the lighthearted caricatures that inhabit Amarcord. Whereas most of the citizens of Fellini's film are indifferent to fascism, the people in Cuerda's cannot escape the powers which are pressing the issues. Conflict comes to a sudden but logical head; the fundamental disagreements, willingness to do combat, and itch for revenge by those politically cast out can be put off no longer. The Butterfly's disquieting, freeze-frame ending deliberately inverts all the terrific freedom that the finale of Truffaut's The 400 Blows suggests. It also signifies a truth more upsetting than the obvious about war; not only peace is lost, but hope invested in a future generation. The real tragedy is the death of a liberal education.