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[whitespace] Manuel Lozano, Fernando Fernán Gomez
Life Lessons: Manuel Lozano and Fernando Fernán Gomez explore nature.

Gold Standard

Miramax courts Oscar with 'Butterfly,' another boy-and-his-mentor movie

By Nicole McEwan

WHAT DO CINEMA PARADISO (1990), Kolya (1996) and Life Is Beautiful (1998) have in common? All three are Miramax-distributed foreign films starring diminutive Laurence Oliviers who easily outshine their respective co-stars. All three are tearjerkers with historical backdrops. And yes, all three went on to win Best Foreign Film Oscars. Mere coincidence? No way.

There are certain givens in the Oscar game. Male actors know that playing a character with a disability increases their chances of bringing home the gold (think Rain Man, My Left Foot or Shine). For female thesps, hookers' roles are a good bet (Klute, Mighty Aphrodite, Leaving Las Vegas). Miramax has found its own little formula for success, it seems, and it is resolutely sticking to the program. This year's model is Butterfly (originally titled Butterfly's Tongue).

The requisite quaint setting is a small village in the Galicia region of Spain. Adapted from three short stories by Manuel Rivas, the exquisitely lensed film takes place before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Spain is still in its short-lived period as a free republic. The frequent appearance of the oppressive Civil Guard, however, hints that fascism is about to rear its ugly head.

Our tiny tour guide is Moncho (Manuel Lozano), an asthmatic 8-year-old whose weak constitution has kept him from attending school. Shy and somewhat spoiled by his overprotective mother, Moncho's nickname, Sparrow, describes his personality perfectly. Moncho's first day of school is a disaster. Terrified after hearing tall tales of teacher Don Gregorio's (Fernando Fernán Gomez) brutish behavior, the tremulous child wets his pants when asked to announce his name.

The incident prompts the teacher to visit the child's home, where he meets Moncho's dad, a tailor whose political sympathies lie with the republic, and his mother, a devoutly religious woman with more traditional views. There, Gregorio and Moncho form a friendship that flourishes as the Don teaches his young charge about the glories of the natural world. An atheist, Gregorio's anti-church views make him an easy target in a town where political alliances are as ephemeral as the weather. But to Moncho's innocent eyes, the Don is simply a man whose knowledge, patience and kindness give him a near mystical air.

Lozano, who resembles a young Mark Wahlberg, is a natural actor whose infinitely expressive eyes do all the work. Yet, despite his appealing screen presence, the film has a sketchy quality. By choosing to tell the story from Moncho's naive point of view, director José Luis Cuerda leaves out valid historical information which would have given the audience a richer understanding of the unfolding events. Instead, all we're left with is a rather unripe coming of age story, a "Birth of Spanish Fascism"--as told by Disney.

My guess is you'll see it at the Oscars, nonetheless.


Butterfly (R; 107 min.) directed by José Luis Cuerda, written by Rafael Azcona, based on short stories by Manuel Rivas, photographed by Javier Salmones and starring Fernando Fernán Gomez and Manuel Lozano, opens Friday at the Park Theater in Menlo Park.

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From the August 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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