“Sometimes it’s better not to know.”
The marvelous, amazing and ultimately tragic film Mariposa Negra (Black Butterfly) follows the relationship between two young Peruvian women who are thrown together by circumstance and then swept up in brutality orchestrated by Montesinos, the head of Peru’s Intelligence Service. This is yet another incredible film from director Francisco Lombardi. After his fantastic Ojos Que No Ven and Tinta Roja, I couldn’t wait to see Mariposa Negra, and I was not disappointed.
When the film begins, young idealistic schoolteacher, Gabriela (Melania Urbina) is engaged to judge, Guido Pazos (Dario Abad) when he is brutally murdered in his apartment. Tabloid journalist, Angela (Magdyel Ugaz) is assigned to cover the story. As usual, her boss, Osman (Gustavo Bueno) hands her an outline of the sort of muck he wants her to write. The torture and murder of the judge–a man who’d received death threats–turns into a sleazy story claiming that the judge was killed while participating in a homosexual orgy.
Grief-stricken Gabriela begins haunting the newspaper office. Already ripped apart by the loss of her fiance, Gabriela is outraged at the tabloid headlines. Gabriela, who comes from a privileged background, is largely oblivious to the uglier side of Peruvian politics, and so she interprets the tabloid story in a linear fashion, seeing it as a pack of lies that needs to be corrected rather than a piece of propaganda controlled by Montesinos. After Gabriela creates a scene in the newspaper office, Osman orders her dragged outside, and there she waits for hours, determined to talk to the journalist who wrote the story about Guido.
Angela notes Gabriela’s tenacious, patient presence outside of the building, and she approaches Gabriela. Is she driven by curiosity, a spark of compassion, or is she motivated by the urge to pop Gabriela’s innocent illusions about Peruvian society? After meeting Angela, the two girls–similar age but from opposite backgrounds–strike up a relationship. These two characters are both fascinating women, and their relationship is at the heart of this incredible film.
Angela has no illusions, is tough and jaded. While she contemplates ambition, she’s lost her drive, and her editor bitches at her for her lack of enthusiasm without realizing that he is responsible for her attitude. With all those sleazy stories she’s told to write, she’s world-weary enough to realize that she’s caught in a maze of corruption, and that fighting against it is futile. But then she meets Gabriela–a girl who comes from a protected, cosseted environment, but who will not rest until she has revenge. Confronted with Gabriela’s naivete, Angela is at first brusque but then she becomes curious about Gabriela. This curiosity is tinged with a protective edge.
Gabriela discovers that tapes exist of Guido’s death, and Montesinos, who had a penchant for taping his illegal activities–ordered the torture and murder (termed ‘medical operations’)–along with video commemoration of the killing.
Ultimately this is a tragic story, immensely sad and incredibly disturbing. But at the same time there’s beauty here–Gabriela’s single minded, obsessive desire to meet Guido’s killers and her calm acceptance of her inevitable fate. To her, giving her life is worth the risk if she can clear Guido’s name and catch his killers. Angela, at first, dismisses Gabriela as a lightweight, incapable of holding her own on the streets, but Gabriela possesses what Angela lacks–a belief system, and that gives her strength and makes her impervious to fear. Common sense and a strong sense of self-preservation would hinder Angela from undertaking the sort of risks Gabriela takes, and Gabriela continues to surprise Angela.
The only film I can compare to Mariposa Negra is George Sluizer’s Dutch film Spoorloos (the American version starring Jeff Bridges is The Vanishing) in which the main character, Rex Hofman possesses the same sort of single-minded obsession as Gabriela. There is simply no peace in this life, on this planet until Gabriela completes–or fails–her mission. Obsession usually causes stress and often-erratic behavior, but in Mariposa Negra, Gabriela’s obsessive quest to avenge Guido actually gives her peace and an unnerving otherworldly serenity. Gabriela’s aura of innocence adds to the film’s strong sense of fatalism.
Mariposa Negra from director Francisco J. Lombardi highlights a dark period in Peru’s history. The downfall of Montesinos eventually came as the result of the exposure of his secret videotape stash by Peruvian journalists who were brave enough to expose Montesinos via television and risk the consequences.