Review: The Spirit of the Beehive

2 Oct

I revisited one of my favorites the other day, the Criterion edition of The Spirit of the Beehive.  Victor Erice’s debut film, titled El Espíritu de la Colmena in Spanish, is one of those increasingly rare pleasures that only improves with each viewing.  This 1973 film achieves the impressive feat of sincerely capturing the wonder and terror of life through a child’s eyes.  The setting is Hoyuelos, Spain; a tiny village on the Castilian plain.  The year is 1940, and the effects of the Spanish Civil War are evident throughout the town: empty buildings, empty streets, a letter being written to a long-lost loved one.  Our young heroine is a dark-eyed girl named Ana, a child of sensitivity and audacity, whose imagination seeks an outlet in the post-war drudgery of rural life.  Her character is that special blend of courage and timidity unique to childhood, as she navigates the dangers of the world around her.  At every turn, the film has us routing for or worrying over her, drawing us through the camera into her subjective reality, resonant with recognizable fears and fascinations.

The film begins with a showing of the movie Frankenstein, James Whale’s classic.  The town hall is converted into a makeshift theater, and the townspeople fill in, carrying their own chairs, eager for this rare treat.  Ana and her sister take seats right up front.  The iconic scene is shown on the screen, where Frankenstein’s monster plays with a little girl at the side of a lake, then kills her.  This scene is in many ways the axis around which Spirit of the Beehive turns – it is the mysterious danger of the adult world, and a child’s piercing curiosity into it.  The Frankenstein scene haunts Ana, and becomes an impetus and metaphor of her adventures throughout the film.

Spirit is an unusual film, slow-paced and introspective, and often very fragmented.  Its scattered dreaminess reflects a child’s perspective, where every event is full of wide-eyed but unasked questions.  The film was made during the final days of Franco’s regime, and its director Victor Erice does a clever job of bringing the effects of war to light, without being overtly political or controversial.  Under Franco, censorship was still in strict effect, and Spirit is a film with many subtle criticisms of the post-war era.  Some critics have argued that Frankenstein’s monster is synonymous with Franco himself, and Ana’s innocence reflects the innocence of the Spanish people.  But Spirit was able to escape the censors, due to the subtlety of its imagery.

This is also a simply gorgeous film.  The cinematography is masterful and well-conceived – metaphoric light and strategic framing add poignancy to many scenes.  The symbolism of bees and beehives is repeated throughout the film – in Ana’s father’s profession as a beekeeper, in the yellow light of the girls’ bedroom, and in the striking honey-comb pattern of a stained glass window.  The film’s title, according to Erice, comes from a book by Maurice Maeterlinck, who uses the expression “The Spirit of the Beehive” to describe the mysterious and paradoxical force that seems to move the behavior of bees.  This idea, combined with the iconic Frankenstein scene, gave birth to one of Spain’s most celebrated and influential films.  Sadly, Victor Erice’s subsequent output has been minimal, and the brilliant cinematographer Luis Cuadrado, who was actually losing his sight during the filming of Spirit, was soon forced to retire.  Nevertheless, the legacy of this film lives indomitably on, a testament to Spain’s beauty and resilience, and a thing of real cinematic beauty.

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