Children are often frightened of the unknown, of being abandoned, or of not being liked. In the Spanish village of Galicia in 1936, seven-year-old Moncho (Manuel Lozano) is afraid of school. His mother says, "He's a sparrow out of the nest for the first time." Don Gregorio (Fernando Fernan Gomez), the teacher, is a gentle elder who loves books and the natural world. He takes the sensitive, asthmatic Moncho under his wings. The boy feels very close to him on several outings to the woods where they search for butterflies and other insects.
This bittersweet coming-of-age drama directed by Jose Luis Cuerda, based on three short stories by Manuel Rivas, beautifully delineates the ways in which Moncho is ushered into encounters with the mysteries of the adult world. His best friend takes him on excursions to spy on two lovers. His older brother, who plays saxophone in a local band, enables him to see a wider world in another village. But it is Don Gregorio who gives Moncho the best gifts of all a yearning for freedom and a deep sense of wonder.
At one point, the boy asks his teacher about hell and the Republican, who is an atheist, says it is wherever hate and cruelty dominate. Spain is in political turmoil. The town gets a taste of hell when the rising Fascists round up townsfolk who support the government in power. Family and community loyalties are severely tested.
When there is fear, Gandhi said, we lose the way of our spirit. Paranoia can suffocate our courage, sanity, and love. The powerful and moving closing scene in Butterfly vividly depicts the ways fear cuts us off from the good that is both outside and inside us.