Butterfly's Tongue (2000) - Synopsis

Butterfly's Tongue (2000)

Late winter, 1936. In a small Galician village, Moncho, a boy of eight, is about to begin school, having been unable to do so at the beginning of the academic year like everyone else because of asthma. How he is afraid. He's heard that the teacher flogs pupils.

The first day of school he runs away, frightened. He spent the night in the mountain. Don Gregorio himself, the teacher who doesn't flog, goes to his house to fetch him. When he goes back to school, Moncho is applauded by the other boys, not without some encouragement from the teacher himself.

Thus begins his apprenticeship, into life and knowledge. A new friend, Roque, the son of the inn-keeper, tells him all about the passionate love between O'Lis and Carmina, from first-hand experience, since he himself spies on them, in spite of the odd scrape with Carmina's dog whenever he attempts to get a close glimpse of proceedings. Months later, the dog's untimely intervention at a crucial moment brings about its own downfall. In the meantime, the teacher introduces his pupils to many aspects of learning, from nature to academia: the American origin of potatoes, the odd habits of strange birds, or the reason why the tongue of the butterfly is spiral. They also engage in the reading of poetry, out loud, and are made aware of Don Gregorio's uprightness and absolute integrity, having witnessed his refusal to accept gifts bestowed upon him by the regional Cacique, in his endeavour to win special favours for his son.

At the same time, at home, Moncho share a room with his fifteen-year-old brother Andres, a budding saxophonist who holds down a job at the apothecary's. Ramon, his father, is a tailor by profession, and a moderate, low-key Republican at heart, and his pious mother, Rosa, is devoted to her husband and children. Andres almost lands a contract to play with a band at village fairs and celebrations. At the Santa Maria de Lombas Fair, he encounters impossible love, and ends up spending a cold night out in the mist, during which he experiences the magic of evolving from a far-from-accomplished saxophonist to a remarkable virtuoso with the instrument.

With the advent of spring, Don Gregorio takes the class out into the open countryside. He reckons that the direct observation of nature can teach his students much more than hours in the classroom. But this doesn't mean he discards the possibility of using the most modern, technical elements available in order to fill certain gaps in their education. Hence his promise to his enthused students to make full use of the much touted microscope from The Ministry of Education; when it eventually arrives. It will allow them to observe the most minute details as well as the tiniest organs of the insects, such as the tongue of the butterfly. As well, Don Gregorio lends Moncho his personal copy of Treasure Island. He has a special liking for the boy. The boy, in turn, is no less fascinated by his teacher.

But, the microscope doesn't get to them on time. No use is ever made of it. On July 18, 1936, the world caves in on them. The military uprising is successful. Rosa, seized with anguish, makes sure her husband destroys all the Republican newspapers and magazines previously in his keeping, not to mention the party card of the moderately left-leaning party to which he belongs. She is also careful to remind her children that their father never had a bad word to say about any priest, let alone that he ever engaged in the task of making a suit for the schoolmaster.

But, as fate would have it, the schoolmaster, sporting the very suit made for him by the tailor, is the last person to get on the truck that is taking the unfortunate passengers to their execution, among them the mayor, the inn-keeper, the father of Moncho's best friend, the singer of the band to which Andres belongs, along with a dozen or so Republicans. The entire village turns out to witness their departure. All of them being zealously urged on by a dozen Falangists to hurl insults at them.

Rosa, afraid of the fate that might befall her husband, urges him to join in the insults. A desperate Ramon eventually complies. As does his elder son, Andrés. And Moncho, in tears that scarcely allow him to be heard amongst sobs, shouts: "Atheist! Red! Nightkingtale! Divel! Butterfly Tongue!" And, like all the other little boys present, he proceeds to toss stones at the lorry as it inches away into the distance.