The Salma Hayek tv-movie based on Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies (which is a few years old by now) is just being screened on British tv for the first time. The reviews have not been necessarily kind. Here is a sampling from the Guardian’s lukewarm take:
Entertainment grade: C
History grade: B–
The film begins with pictures of Trujillo’s real-life victims (nasty, but accurate) and a few title cards. “His secret alliances with the church, aristocrats, intellectuals and the press were the foundation of his dictatorship,” it tells us. Hang on. Church, yes. Aristocrats, to some extent, yes. Intellectuals and the press, hell no. Trujillo didn’t ally with those groups: he harassed, repressed and censored them, and had individuals connected to them thrown to the sharks. Literally. Anyway, since when has anyone become an all-powerful dictator by allying with intellectuals? The historian loves intellectuals and even aspires to be one, but most of them can barely find their spectacles in the morning, let alone run one of the most efficient tyrannies of the entire 20th century. Trujillo’s real foundations of power were in the far more obvious quarters of the army, big business and the United States government.
The young Minerva Mirabal (Salma Hayek) meets a student activist named Lio. He is played by Latin singer Marc Anthony, who some blogs unkindly but accurately point out bears a passing resemblance to Count Dracula. In between worrying about the hungry look in his eyes whenever he gets near Minerva’s neck, and wondering why so few of his scenes are filmed in direct sunlight, audiences may wonder if Lio was a real person. He is based on Pericles Franco, known as Periclito, a communist dissident. Minerva Mirabal did indeed fall in love with Periclito, and he was, as Lio is in the film, exiled. He was more interesting and more notable than Lio. In Chile, he published an essay, La Tragedia Dominicana, for which the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda wrote the foreword.
Invited to one of Trujillo (Edward James Olmos)’s parties, Minerva is invited to dance with the creepy old dictator. He cops a feel. She slaps him and storms out, to the horror of everyone present and particularly her family. The next day, her father sends a telegram to Trujillo apologising, but it is no good: he is thrown in jail. Improbable as this might sound, it’s true. The party was on 12 October 1949. In real life, Minerva was even more daring than she was shown in the film. During the dance, she argued with Trujillo’s politics, and told him to stop hounding Periclito. There is not a record of her slapping the dictator, but she did walk out after he made a pass at her. She and her parents were afterwards imprisoned.
The game of cat-and-mouse between Trujillo and Minerva shown in the film is accurate. In real life as in the film, Trujillo allowed Minerva to train as a lawyer, but then denied her a licence to practice. And he did really suggest that she could end the misery her family suffered at his hands by sleeping with him. When a Trujillo emissary informed her of this offer, Minerva is said to have shouted: “I won’t! Better that you shoot me here! I would rather kill myself!” She and her sisters joined the anti-Trujillo resistance, and became known as the Butterflies.
Finally, Trujillo tires of the game. Minerva and her sisters, Maria Teresa and Patria, are ordered out of their car. The audience knows as well as they do what is going to happen next. One of Trujillo’s newspapers announced that the Mirabal sisters had died in an accident. The film overstates its case by claiming that their death was “the final blow to the regime of Leonidas Trujillo” (also, he was called Rafael Trujillo; Leonidas was his middle name). His falling-out with the United States was considerably more significant.
Historically, it’s a respectable version of Minerva Mirabal’s life. Cinematically, it doesn’t quite live up to the passion of the novel by Julia Alvarez on which it is based.