Butterfly Wings

English Title: Butterfly Wings

Original Title: Alas de mariposa

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Gasteizko Zinema, Fernando Trueba

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa

Producer(s): Juanma Bajo Ulloa, Joseba Nafarrate

Screenplay: Juanma Bajo Ulloa, Eduardo Bajo Ulloa

Cinematographer: Enric Davi , Aitor Mantxola

Art Director: Satur Idarreta

Editor: Pablo Blanco

Runtime: 109 minutes


Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Susana García, Silvia Munt, Fernando Valverde, Laura Vaquero

Year: 1991

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

Carmen’s firstborn child is a girl, Ami, and her father-in-law, Alejandro, is extremely disappointed. Carmen then becomes obsessed with giving a son to her husband, Gabriel, a garbage collector, who tries to calm her down since he is extremely happy with their now 6-year-old daughter. When Carmen does finally get pregnant, Ami progressively feels left aside. Alejandro is seriously ill and dies before his daughter-in-law gives birth to a son, and the tension and incomprehension increase within Ami until everything explodes when she suffocates her baby brother. Fifteen years later mother and daughter still do not talk to each other even though they are living under the same roof, and it is Gabriel who is unsuccessfully trying to build bridges between them. When Ami brings him a sandwich to him on night-shift, one of her father’s colleagues, Gorka, rapes her, and in the ensuing fight Gabriel is beaten up and left paralysed and unable to talk, as was his father before him. And, as her mother was before her, it is Ami who is now pregnant.

When Butterfly Wings was released in 1991, there had never been a portrayal of tormented childhood like it in Spanish cinema. The observant confusion in Laura Vaquero (Ami’s) gaze can only find a precedent in Ana Torrent’s eyes in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Cría! (1976) but, here, Ami is not an unbiased witness of adult misdoings under Franco’s dictatorship, she is an active victim of oppressive family circumstances which will lead her, unknowingly, to murder.
With its dark expressionistic cinematography, Bajo Ulloa’s opera prima can actually be considered a precedent to a number of films by Spanish-based directors linked to a genre, horror, which was very popular at the turn of the century and beyond. We can find traces of it in Jaume Balagueró’s The Nameless (1999), Darkness (2002) and Fragile (2005), and in Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006); even in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001) and the more recent Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). It should come as no surprise then that this 24-year-old film director from Vitoria won the Concha de Oro for Best Film at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, where he was conveniently hailed as a landmark of Basque cinema, a nationalistic project that never materialized.
Not that Bajo Ulloa seems to be sympathetic to local tradition. Issues such as patriarchal values by which a firstborn son is expected in order to prolong the family name, the misogynist contempt with which Gabriel is met by his colleagues because of his daughter, or the religious iconography that terrifies young Ami, reveal a willingness to expose a culture of submission. As a matter of fact, the young girl will develop her own imagery – puerile, colourful butterflies drawn on paper that, in her late adolescence, will become dark metallic sculptures resembling gothic crucifixions – as a result of the traumatic circumstances she has been through.
The soundtrack is also an important element, with the sinister four knocks of the grandfather’s walking-stick in order to draw attention towards him, or the late-night thunder that terrifies Ami, supported by the dramatic musical score of Bingen Mendizábal. But it is the interior shots, with low lighting coming in through the windows, the long corridors and even the black-and-white television showing Bajo Ulloa’s short El reino de Víctor (Victor’s Kingdom) (he wanted to use the smothering scene in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a source of inspiration for Ami, but never got the permission) which mainly provide the gloomy atmosphere. When half way through the film, immediately after the baby’s death, the action moves fifteen years forward, things can only get worse for Ami, who regularly cuts herself on her arms, and whose first sexual experience is rape. Everything is even darker than before, except when she steals bottles of milk in the broad daylight in order to save enough money to escape from home, her only hope for survival.
In spite of Butterfly Wings’ critical approval, his also-remarkable following film, The Dead Mother, and the huge box-office success of Airbag, a comedy which had no connection with his two previous films, Bajo Ulloa remained an outsider for the Spanish film industry. He still is.

Author of this review: John D Sanderson