The Spirit of the Beehive 1973, Spain. Written and directed by Victor Erice. Starring Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera.
When I watch a movie, it’s like there are two of me sitting in the same theater seat. There’s the regular movie-going guy who doesn’t think too much about what he’s seeing. He likes blood and boobs and stuff that explodes, monsters, axe-maniacs, and the occasional light saber, only stopping now and then to deeply consider what’s actually happening on the screen. Long ago that guy saw the Sylvester Stallone movie COBRA in a movie theater and really, really liked it. Believe me when I tell you to very few people really, really liked COBRA. Not even when Sly was so cool with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, the bad guy was the kind of true creep you really want to see get it, and the car (a custom 1950 Mercury) was just plain bad-ass. Many of us call the kind of movies that guy likes POPCORN MOVIES.
But there’s this other fellow who tends to tag along with him, usually uninvited. This guy might like some of the same things as his friend, but he is a seeker and connoisseur of SERIOUS CINEMA. He has an eye for cinematography and thematic motifs and the clever subversion of tired old motion picture tropes. This guy is usually trying to examine plot structure and character development as images are flying past on the screen in front of him. He gets bored with clichés really fast and finds it hard to bear plot holes that you could drive a 1950 Mercury through. He tends to prefer foreign movies, ranking SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE among his favorite films ever. This guy doesn’t just want to see a movie, he wants it to change his very life. This guy did not enjoy COBRA as much as his friend.
A few days ago, I sat down with these guys over some leftover Halloween candy to watch one guy’s favorite movie, THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, much to the other guy’s chagrin . . .
Spain, 1940. Following a brutal civil war the country has fallen into silence under the watchful eyes of the Franco regime. Somewhere in a village on the Castilian plain, a rickety old truck rattles into the center of town. It’s quickly swarmed by children shouting, “The movies are coming! The movies are coming!” In the makeshift theater of a local town hall, the lights go out. Images flicker on the wall and James Whale’s 1931 film FRANKENSTEIN comes to life. From among the mostly women and children who have gathered here to see the latest movie, one tiny face stands out more than the others.
On the screen, the monster has escaped from Frankenstein’s laboratory, making its way toward a distant house. A little girl named Maria is waving goodbye to her father as he leaves on an errand. She crouches at the edge of a lake, tossing daisies into the water. The monster emerges through the brush and stands above her. The scene is tense. Maria looks up at the creature and invites him to play with her. After watching her toss more daisies into the lake, the monster looks down at the flowers she puts in his massive hand. He does as he watched her do, throwing the flowers in the water and watching them float away, with obvious glee. But then the daisies are gone. An expression of disappointment comes over the creatures face and he looks up at the little girl, pretty like a flower. In the next scene, Maria’s anguished father is carrying her dead body through the village.
CINEMA: During the scene from FRANKENSTEIN, the camera keeps cutting back to show two girls in the light from the movie projector. There’s the older sister, Isabel, and six-year old Ana, whose big brown eyes are huge as she watches the scene unfold. Her reaction to the movie is haunting. You can see it in her face, going from shock and fear . . . to fascination, maybe even understanding. She had never seen the movie before and all of those reactions were completely real. The girl was Ana Torrent, and she wasn’t really an actress at all –
POPCORN: So, it was like Jake Lloyd in THE PHANTOM MENACE?
CINEMA: No, not like Jake Lloyd. The director wanted someone who wasn’t a professional actress for the lead role, to capture all of the innocence as realistically as possible. He ended up changing the names of the characters from what they were in the script because Ana didn’t really grasp that they were acting. He was very anxious because everything on the set was very real for this girl. Filming this scene, he said that he had the sensation of observing something that was truly a mystery . . . a six-year old child is not acting, he said, she’s living.
POPCORN: Better than me, dude. I’ll be honest, I thought we were gonna be watching one of those old Hammer movies. Maybe even MONSTER SQUAD. You said something about Frankenstein and Snickers bars, that’s all I heard.
CINEMA: Honestly, didn’t you get a special feeling when you watched the look on that little girl’s face? There was such cinematic truth in that scene, something that the best acting in the world can’t give you.
POPCORN: I don’t get special feelings from little girls, dude. We’re talkin’ at least a D cup here, like a Hammer movie. I thought you tricked me with another one of those documentaries at first, the history of dirt in foreign countries or something.
CINEMA: You know that you’re repulsive, right? And that movie was about soil . . .
POPCORN: Maybe that explains it. Felt like I was six feet under. But yeah, that movie theater looked like a real thing. And when those kids started watching ol’ Frankie up there . . . well, the look on your girlfriend’s face . . .
CINEMA: It looked real, didn’t it?
CINEMA: The girls live with their parents, Fernando and Teresa. He’s a beekeeper, scholar and a poet who spends most of the time in his study. She’s a lonely woman who writes these longing letters to someone who’s never really identified. They don’t have any real conversations together. The whole family isn’t even seen together until near the end of the movie.
POPCORN: Yeah, I could see why this chick would have imaginary friends. Even that sister of hers is no good, too busy trying on lipstick and pretending to be dead to spook her. It’s like she can’t even trust her own family.
CINEMA: Well, that was Franco Spain. The Nazis played a part in the regime coming to power, if that explains anything. The movie is set in 1940, when the terror was at its worst. People were getting killed, disappearing, just because they criticized their government. It was winding down by 1973, when the movie was made, but you still had to cloak everything you said against the dictatorship. There was some danger that this film could have killed the filmmakers.
POPCORN: I guess that’s why they keep everything so quiet in this flick.
CINEMA: Exactly. Fernando talks about the mindless buzzing of the hive, everyone just doing what they’re expected to do. Then we see the hexagonal panes of glass in the family’s house and all that honey-colored light coming through. This is undoubtedly an allusion to society under the Franco regime, orderly and organized, but devoid of any imagination. Leave it to a child to keep the human spirit alive –
POPCORN: And leave it to you to suck the spirit out of a movie. Dude, you’re not Siskel and Ebert. We’re, like, Franco American and barely been outta Michigan.
CINEMA: Okay, okay. All of that’s some pretty heavy subtext, I know. But it’s not really about any of that when you see it. It’s about a lonely little girl who sees a misunderstood monster and wishes that she could be his friend.
POPCORN: Made me think of that other one you like. The one with the chick that’s a cat. Not where the dude handcuffs her ‘cuz she’s gonna tear him up when they get it on, but the boring one. Where she’s a ghost and the girl leaves the notes in the tree . . .
CINEMA: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE?
POPCORN: Yeah, that’s the one.
CINEMA: There is a similar child’s-eye quality to this film. It’s not as dark as similar movies that had preceded it, like FORBIDDEN GAMES, where little kids get over their parents being killed in the war by burying all the dead animals they can find. But the Cat People reference, that’s fairly astute, my friend.
POPCORN: Yeah, I’m one astute son-of-a-bitch.
CINEMA: The director, Victor Erice, talked about seeing an American movie, THE SCARLET CLAW, a Sherlock Holmes story where every color but black and white had been abolished. A murderer is going around in the middle of the night, slashing people’s throats with a metal claw. Little Victor was just six, like his Ana was in BEEHIVE. He couldn’t understand what he saw on the screen, so he kept watching the faces of the adults around him. He felt like they knew something he didn’t, a secret that explained everything. By the end of the movie, Sherlock had solved the mystery and brought the killer to justice, but for one six-year old boy a black hole had been ripped open in the world and his innocence had been sucked into it.
POPCORN: Jeez, man.
CINEMA: When the sisters are in their beds that night, Ana won’t let Isabel sleep. She wants to know why he killed the girl and why they killed him after that. Her face is just wide open with wanting to know the truth.
POPCORN: So Big Sis lies to her.
CINEMA: Of course. She tells her that everything in the movies is fake. The monster didn’t really kill the girl; as a matter of fact, he lives nearby. He’s a spirit, and he can be conjured up by closing her eyes and saying, “I’m Ana.” The next day Isabel takes her to an abandoned barn, where she claims the monster lives.
POPCORN: Surprise, nothing there.
CINEMA: Just a big footprint. But Ana isn’t ready to give up yet.
POPCORN: Is that when she starts trippin’ on ‘shrooms?
CINEMA: Not yet.
POPCORN: This one time, I saw my dead grandma crawling up my leg with a knife in her teeth. Seriously freaky shit.
CINEMA: What? You did not.
POPCORN: Did too. Another time, we were listening to “Hummer” by Smashing Pumpkins, and a tree leaned down and hugged me. Wrapped its big ol’ tree arms right around me and threw me up in the sky.
CINEMA: Anyway . . . so, there’s this wounded soldier who jumps from a train, seeking refuge in the abandoned barn.
POPCORN: Just barely missed this big silver sphere thing that was just hauling ass –
CINEMA: We never really know who this soldier is, but it’s implied that he’s the old lover the girls’ mother is writing to. Ana finds him there and starts bringing him food. She tries to bandage his bloody foot –
POPCORN: Never really knew what that silver thing was. Buddies said that makes it a UFO. But this other time, we had a campfire going, and I watched the flames turn into little fire people. They were just dancing –
CINEMA: So she bandages this guy’s foot –
POPCORN: – and dancing –
CINEMA: – and she’s looking at him like he might be the monster. But there are gunshots in the middle of the night, and when she returns to the barn there’s nothing but blood where the man used to be. Ana gets really upset –
POPCORN: This other time . . . I heard this girl’s voice. Man, you can’t tell me a voice ain’t hot, because she just sounded smokin’. So I followed this smokin’ hot voice –
CINEMA: – and she runs off, before her father can stop her. Everyone is looking for Ana, calling for her. A search party sets out at nightfall, villagers with torches, just like the villagers who came after the monster in FRANKENSTEIN –
POPCORN: I’m following this voice, and following it. After about half an hour I realize that my friends are gone. But then I hear the voice again, so I look across the street –
CINEMA: This is when Ana sees the mushroom, the kind her father had warned the girls about.
POPCORN: – and – swear, dude – there’s this troll . . .
CINEMA: So she reaches down toward this glistening, dangerous looking fungus –
POPCORN: And she fuckin’ sees Frankenstein!
CINEMA: Uh, yeah.
POPCORN: Looking in the water, and he’s in there. Then he walks outta the woods. Dude! That was the best part. She’s sittin’ by the lake and he just comes shufflin’ up, like “Hey, Ana.” He’s all reaching out for her –
CINEMA: Like Maria and the monster.
POPCORN: Oh yeeeeeah.
CINEMA: So, do you get it?
POPCORN: She was trippin’ hardcore, man.
CINEMA: Well, that’s not all of it, but sure. So what do you think now?
POPCORN: Well, this one time I saw the little dude from the Lucky Charms box up on a curtain rod. I was about six and I had this fever. Dude wasn’t mean or anything, he was just walking around up there. But I guess Frankenstein is probably scarier . . .
CINEMA: I mean the movie, what do you think about the movie?
POPCORN: Still rather see some Hammer girls.
CINEMA: Well, that degraded quickly.
POPCORN: We done?
CINEMA: I could go on for days.
POPCORN: Yeah, I know. Dude, next time I’m pickin’ out the flick.
CINEMA: Don’t tell me, let me guess –
POPCORN: We’re gonna go see the PEANUTS movie.
POPCORN: You want movies about kids, dude . . .
CINEMA: No, please, don’t make me.
POPCORN: Oh, it’s happening.