Successfully coupling one of Spain’s oldest thesps with one of its youngest, Jose Luis Cuerda injects new life into the coming-of-age format with “The Butterfly’s Tongue,” which starts out as a rural nostalgia piece and develops into a hard-edged but compassionate indictment of hypocrisy. Cuerda — better known as the producer for thrills-merchant Alejandro Amenabar (who composed the score here) — has a patchy helming history. “Tongue” may be his best yet, but historical knowledge is needed to enjoy the movie to the full, and a general lack of glamour about the project will mean that even at home B.O. records won’t be broken.
Setting is Galicia, northern Spain, just before the Spanish Civil War. Sensitive, asthmatic 8-year-old Moncho (first-timer Manuel Lozano), who has just started school, is so petrified by elderly schoolmaster Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez) that he escapes into the woods. But despite his fierce appearance, Don Gregorio is a gentle, humanitarian Republican and free-thinker, keen to teach the quick-thinking Moncho how to be good.
Plot takes second place to the description of the developing relationship between the two, plus the other characters — Moncho’s practical-minded mother, Rosa (Uxia Blanco); Republican father, Ramon (Gonzalo Martin Uriarte); sax-playing older brother, Andres (Alexis de Los Santos), who is doing some growing up of his own, and a local group of musicians, which Moncho joins and accompanies around the region to further expose him to the oddities of human nature.
Moncho spends much time with the soon-to-retire Don Gregorio in the countryside, where the old man reveals the miraculous beauties of nature to him — among them, the butterfly’s tongue — beauties that the script poetically sets against the ugliness of humanity after the Fascists roll into town.
Refusing to peddle the simple “Republican good, Fascist bad” line of so many Spanish Civil War films, the script is penetrating and compassionate, showing how basic issues of survival can lie behind immoral behavior — and that some immoral behavior is naturally human.
The rhythms of ’30s rural life are well captured, and period detail is top-notch, with a surreal local fiesta the best of a series of set pieces. Perfs from a largely unknown cast are excellent, with the expressive-faced Lozano unfazed by exchanging lines with a living legend of Spanish cinema.
Fernan Gomez sheds his recent flinty persona in favor of a touching and resonant perf reminiscent of his turn in Victor Erice’s “Spirit of the Beehive.”
Script by Rafael Azcona is more coherent than some of his recent work. But a couple of sequences could have been cut without hurting the overall shape, and the oppositions — man vs. animal, nature vs. nurture, innocence vs. experience — are sometimes over-schematic. Richly textured, well-composed lensing by Javier Salmones is a joy, without overdoing the region’s picture-postcard beauty.
Amenabar’s lyrical score is a deceptively sweet complement to the action, particularly during the final scene — though hand-and-instrument coordination in the musical sequences is shoddy.