Postwar European cinema has always excelled at dishing out observant, powerful coming-of-age fare, where childhood is never quite the candy-coated state of bliss the American Entertainment Machine would have you believe. In films like François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, kids are portrayed as hopeful but confused, made wiser by adjusting to disappointments and the limitations of their immediate circumstances They're hardly ever presented as idealized, one-note innocents. (Rainer Werner Fassbinder even had the cojones to make a little disabled girl a claws-out manipulator in his film Chinese Roulette.) Lately, however, we've been treated to a rash of European period dramas featuring cutie-pie juvies paired with lovable adults (Life is Beautiful, anyone?), maybe because they're the kind of films that distributors have found are most likely to win over American audiences.
Butterfly is the latest import of this ilk, a finely etched, effective film set in the Spanish province of Galicia on the eve of the country's civil war in 1936. Its ambition in examining the forces behind the brewing conflict undercuts the treacle inherent in the relationship between a sensitive, button-eyed tot (Manuel Lozano) and his schoolmaster (Fernando Fernán Gomez), a sweet old softy whose folksy brand of secular humanism has aroused the suspicions of the town's far-right-leaning elite.
But Butterfly doesn't really delve explicitly into the political friction transforming Republican Spain until the film's shattering final act. Mostly, the flick sticks to interpreting events through the perspective of its young protagonist. The boy's exquisitely rendered encounters with the natural world (often initiated by his Walt Whitman-esque schoolmaster) always wind up being self-consciously symbolic, and his occasionally irrelevant adventures with the townsfolk make Butterfly seem like a kind of Amarcord lite.
We manage to glean the faint traces of ideological strife from within the little boy's family, where his father, a tailor and Marxist sympathizer, and his mother, a seemingly tolerant Catholic (the father describes his wife as being "mystical"), turn out to have a little Carville/Matalin thing going on. Ultimately, the family is able to unite and preserve itself with an act of betrayal so thoroughly unsettling--and so in contrast with the gentle tone of the rest of the film--that the viewer can't help but feel manipulated.
Butterfly has its flaws, but its concentration on an event in 20th-century history often overshadowed by World War II--and typically ignored in cinema--is really what makes this film worth a look.