Butterfly's Tongue

Spain 1998

Reviewed by Paul Julian Smith


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Galicia, Spain, 1935. Moncho, a timid, asthmatic eight-year-old, is about to start school but fears the teacher will flog him. After a traumatic first day, he runs away and is found at night by a search party. Discovering the teacher, Don Gregorio, is a kindly and enlightened pedagogue, Moncho embraces learning. Encouraged by his new friend Roque, Moncho spies on an unmarried woman, Carmiña, who has sex with her lover O'Lis in the presence of her dog. Later, O'Lis kills the interfering hound.

Andrés, Moncho's 15-year-old brother, is making little progress in his attempt to learn the saxophone. But after falling for a mute Chinese girl in a neighbouring village, he becomes a virtuoso on the instrument. On a trip to the country, Don Gregorio explains the complexity and beauty of the butterfly's tongue to his pupils. This idyllic time is interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in July, 1936. Moncho's devout mother makes her socialist husband renege on his principles. As the leftist Don Gregorio is led away to execution, Moncho and his family, fearful for their own safety, shout insults at him.


Butterfly's Tongue is a modest and unassuming picture which offers all of the pleasures of the period genre. The lush locations of Galicia, captured by Javier Salmones' luminous cinematography, glow green and gold, set-piece celebrations such as local fiestas display a range of handsome costumes and the performances by veterans and newcomers alike are solid and professional. More importantly, Rafael Azcona has crafted a seamless script from three short stories by Manuel Riva, and director José Luis Cuerda paces the plot perfectly. At 95 minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome.

This pleasing aesthetic gloss, however, is precisely what makes Butterfly's Tongue so problematic. While the credits play over authentic photographs of Galician peasants from the period, few non-Spanish viewers are likely to guess that this was the poorest of Spanish regions. Poverty has rarely seemed so picturesque. And while the narrative takes place in the year preceding the Spanish civil war, historical analysis is undercut by a brand of whimsy often associated with misty, Celtic Galicia. At a village festival (with art design based somewhat incongruously on Goya's paintings), for instance, teenager Andrés suddenly becomes a saxophone virtuoso, inspired by his love for a Chinese mute. Inversely Spanish audiences must have felt the parallels between Fernando Fernán-Gómez's fictional schoolteacher, Don Gregorio, and Antonio Machado, real-life schoolteacher and civil war exile, all too obvious. Not only does Don Gregorio share biographical details with this well known historical figure, he even has his students transcribe Machado's poems for dictation.

For all these heavy-handed references to Spanish history, the film is more weighed down by cinematic citations. Butterfly's Tongue's coming-of-age scenario was recently (and more successfully) exploited by Montxo Barrios Armendariz's Secrets of the Heart, a critical and box-office hit in Spain. And Fernán-Gómez, the ubiquitous grumpy old man of Spanish cinema, here seems to be reprising one of his most memorable roles: the father to another troubled child protagonist in Víctor Erice's El espiritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive. (A torch-lit search for a child missing in a forest also brings to mind a similar scene in Erice's 1973 film.) Unfortunately, such comparisons aren't to Butterfly's Tongue's credit. When not stirring memories of Erice's enduring hymn to childhood and haunting investigation into the links between fantasy and history, Cuerda even seems to cite his own past work. In a long and uneven career, he remains best known for another ensemble piece of Galician whimsy shot in the same location, El bosque animado/The Animated Forest (1987).

Interestingly, Butterfly's Tongue boasts the involvement of two seemingly opposed figures in contemporary Spanish cinema: Rafael Azcona and Alejandro Amenábar. Azcona, scriptwriter and director of some of the most corrosive comedies of the Franco era, has long since succumbed to the kind of soft-focus nostalgia which infuses Cuerda's film. Amenábar, who composed the film's music, meanwhile, is the emblematic director of Spain's most urgent contemporary cinema. His urban thrillers Tesis and Abre los ojos/Open Your Eyes (both shown in the UK) are among Spain's highest grossing features. The biggest mystery of Butterfly's Tongue - you're left thinking - lies not in its Celtic whimsy but in how its director Cuerda could have ever produced Amenábar's metropolitan masterpieces.


José Luis Cuerda
Rafael Azcona
Based on stories by
Manuel Riva
Director of Photography
Javier Salmones
Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Art Director
Josep Rosell
Alejandro Amenábar
©Sociedad General de Cine, S.A./Las producciones del Escorpión S.L.
Production Companies
A Sogetel production
Las producciones del Escorpión/Grupo Voz
With the collaboration of Canal+/T.V.G./La Consellería de Cultura, Communicación Social y Turismo
With the participation of T.V.E.
Executive Producers
Fernando Bovaira
José Luis Cuerda
Sogetel Producers
Miryam Mateos
Mónica Martínez
Associate Producer
José María Iresteiro
Production Supervisor
Emiliano Otegui
Production Manager
Pepe Picazo
Unit Manager
José Luis Álvarez
Location Manager
José Luis Carneiro
Assistant Directors
Walter Prieto
Mateo Gil
José Ramón Otegui
Pedro Loro
Script Supervisor
Carmen Soriano
2nd Camera Operator
Julio Madurga
Steadicam Operator
Arturo Aldegunde
Visual Effects
Molinare, S.A.
Set Decorator
Balter Gallart
Sonia Grande
Marina Rodríguez
Ana L. Puigcerver
Teresa Rabal
Molinare, S.A.
Music Performed by
City of Prague Philharmonic
Orchestra Director:
Mario Klemens
Music Producer
Lucio Godoy
Music Recording
Juraj Durovic
Music Mixer
José Luis Crespo
Songs Recording Engineer
Anxo Maciel
"La orquesta azul"
written/directed by
Ángel Illarramendi; "En er mundo";
"Himno de riego";
"El Manisero"
Sound Recording
Goldstein & Steinberg
Mixing Engineer
Patrick Ghislain
Sound Editors
Nacho Royo
Pelayo Gutiérrez
Sound Effects
Julien Naudin
Juan Carlos Pérez Vázquez
Alberto Pérez Vázquez
Ramón Carvajales Lage
Dog Trainers
Antonio Talaverano
Rafael Casado
Fernando Fernán-Gómez
Don Gregorio
Manuel Lozano
Uxía Blanco
Gonzálo Uriarte
Alexis de los Santos
Tamar Novas
Guillermo Toledo
Elena Fernández
Jesús Castejón
D. Avelino
Roque's father
Roberto Vidal
Milagros Jiménez
baby girl
Celso Bugallo
Tucho Lagares
Celso Parada
Xosé Manuel Oliveira (Pico)
accordion player
Lara López
Alberto Castro
José María
Diego Vidal
Manuel Piñeiro
trumpet player
Alfonso Cid
Manuel Seara
José Ramón Vieira
double bassist
Antonio Pérez
Eduardo Gómez
man with birds
Eva María Fernández
Feli Manzano
José F. Expolio
tightrope walker
Metrodome Distribution Ltd
8,601 feet
95 minutes 34 seconds
Dolby Digital
In Colour
2.35:1 [Panavision]
Spanish theatrical title
La lengua de las mariposas
Alternative English language title
The Tongue of the Butterfly
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011