Master thespian Fernando Fernán Gómez supplies the gentle heart that beats between the wings of "Butterfly," a soaring coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Gomez's Don Gregorio is an aged schoolteacher whose humanistic bent endears him to the Republican families in his Galician village. Especially captivated is Moncho (Manuel Lozano), an initially fearful pupil whose eyes are opened to the wonders of the natural world by the older man's indulgent tutelage.
The encroachment of fascism, however, turns Don Gregorio from a living treasure into a pariah, and it's through this transformation that the period-piece "Butterfly" becomes an allegory for modern-day controversies: the clash of conservative religion and "secular humanism," the underfunding of education. There's even a subtle dig at corporate sponsorship of the arts.
None of the thematic concepts that underlie director Cuerda's film are in any way new to the screen. The mentor-apprentice relationship is a favorite of Hollywood tear-jerkers ("Dead Spaniards Society," anyone?) and the use of a child to personify societal upheaval is one of the international cinema's tried-and-true gambits. But the screenplay by Rafael Azcona -- a seamless splicing of three short stories by Manuel Rivas -- consistently surprises. The tale never goes where we expect it to, all the way up to a moving conclusion that disturbs even as it satisfies. For the definition of a must-see, look no further: This film is easy to watch and difficult to forget.