EZMM 2024 Day 5: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 201320142015201620172018201920202021,  2022, and 2023.

[No zombies again this time, folks. Instead, we just get one of the greatest films we’ve ever reviewed. Enjoy.]

Made in 1973, Spanish writer/director Victor Erice’s first feature film, The Spirit of the Beehive, uses the Universal Pictures Frankenstein (1931) as a springboard to poetically explore life in an isolated village on the Castilian plateau just after the fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco comes into power after the devastating Spanish Civil War.  But that’s just one level. This is also a masterpiece of cinematography, a portrait of a family silently drifting apart, a dive into the imaginations of children, and the transition from innocence to experience.

While in 1973 Franco’s grip on artistic expression was fading, don’t go in expecting any overt criticism of the regime, but at the same time, every element of the film is an explicit criticism of fascism. Erice walks this delicate tightrope by avoiding exposition, essentially painting beautiful scenes of isolation and decay with minimal dialogue. As explained by Paul Julian Smith for Criterion, Francoism “attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful ‘quality’ films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally.” This lead to the “use of fantasy and allegory… as a form of indirect critique.”

The focus of the film is a single family, the father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), the mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), and their two daughters, six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) – in a performance that may be the best child acting I’ve ever seen – and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería). Fernando is a beekeeper, and a faded scholar of sorts. The majority of his time is spent alone with his bees or shut up in his darkened study working on what is either a poem about or a treatise on bees. Teresa, also almost always filmed in isolation, writes letters to a distant soldier, perhaps a lover, begging him to write back. She rides her bike to meet the train, where her letters are taken away. She’s an attractive woman and gets admiring glances from the men on the train.

Isabel and Ana are introduced as children in the audience when a mobile cinema arrives to show 1931’s Frankenstein to the village. This becomes the catalyst for everything that follows as Ana is in awe, transfixed by the appearance of Karloff’s monster, particularly the controversial scene between the Monster and the little girl by the lake. However, this is the edited version and we cut away before seeing the Monster throw her in to drown. Instead the next scene we see is the father carrying his dead little girl through town.

Confused, Ana whispers to her sister, asking why he killed the little girl, to which Isabel whispers back that she’ll explain it later. According to Erice, the wide-eyed wonder of Ana while watching the movie was real. He and the cinematographer, Luis Cuadrado were lying the floor filming what was an actual screening of Frankenstein. They captured her real-life first impressions watching the horror classic, and it is a magical moment.

That night, while in their beds, Ana asks Isabel again why the little girl was killed and why did the villagers then kill the Monster. On the spot, Isabel takes advantage of being a little older, a little more experienced, telling Ana that they didn’t die because, as she says, “Everything in the movies is fake. It’s all a trick.” She then doubles down and claims that she’s seen the Monster alive as a spirit roaming the countryside. She talks to him because she’s his friend, and Ana can too, if she just closes her eyes and calls to him, “It’s me, Ana… It’s me Ana…”

The rest of the film is a series of quiet scenes, emphasizing the isolation of the village, shot in natural light by Cuadrado, who was going blind at the time of filming due to an inoperable brain tumor. He committed suicide on January 18, 1980. The film is suffused with the soft glow of the golden hour before sunset and just after sunrise. The home is lit with natural light, filtered to a honey gold through hexagonal panes of yellow stained-glass, as though they lived in the beehive.

This is one of those symbolic elements mentioned earlier. Fernando’s writings about bees emphasize the mindless activity of the hive and his attempt to create a better glass hive that instead only makes the bees less effective. It’s barely a leap to see this as a criticism of Franco’s fascist Spain. But the family itself is also a microcosm of criticism as in the aftermath of the Civil War they have drifted apart, ineffectual and isolated from each other. There isn’t a single shot in the film of the entire family together. Guillermo del Toro commented on this imagery, saying “No matter how old the civil war is, it [the people] almost never come together again. It always stays separate.”

It’s no surprise then, that the children exist with virtually no adult supervision (outside of their time in school, another honeycomb?), allowing their imaginations to explain the world around them without regard for reality. Ana’s obsession with contacting the spirit of Frankenstein’s Monster finds her wandering the fields and exploring the abandoned barn that her sister told her was the spirit’s home.

On one visit, where she discovers a wounded fugitive soldier, she assumes he must be the spirit in disguise. In an act of charity, she returns with her father’s coat (with his musical pocket watch mistakenly taken too), honey and bread. She’s only lucky that she isn’t there when Franco’s forces discover him and he is put to death in a beautifully economical scene of the barn at night, lit by the muzzle flashes as he is shot repeatedly.

The local police summon Fernando, who they have identified by finding his watch on the fugitive, putting him and his whole family at risk. When he’s not charged, he follows Ana back to the barn the next day and watches as she realizes that the blood she discovers is from the “spirit,” now dead and gone. When she sees her father she runs away, transitioning into a full-blown fantasy world where she sees herself as Frankenstein’s Monster while also being visited by a vision of the Creature (played by José Villasante). She discovers the Monster and becomes the Monster. She is no longer a part of the innocent world she’d lived in before that night, whether she implicitly understands it or not.

After being found sleeping in a ruined building, not inside or really outside, in a kind of liminal space between innocence and experience, she is brought home, but doesn’t talk to anyone anymore. She lies in bed, turning her back on her sister as well. The doctor called in to check on her explains that eventually she will forget what happened (as we all do, to one extent or another), and “the important thing is that she’s alive! Alive!”

However, the ending Erice leaves us with is ambiguous about Ana forgetting her trauma, as she quietly slips from bed to stand alone by her window, softly calling to the spirit, just like Isabel told her to. “It’s me, Ana… It’s me, Ana.”

There’s a reason Guillermo del Tor considers The Spirit of the Beehive the best Spanish movie ever made. It is a wonder to behold. Languidly paced, telling its story visually with long silences and Ana’s big, dark, expressive eyes, symbols unfolding in layer after layer of meaning. It could just as easily be described as about the power of cinema to open up the world of imagination to fight against the harshness of reality, as it can be seen as a criticism of fascist brutality, or the transition from purity to corruption. The title of the film, according to Erice, comes from the book The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck, and describes “the powerful, enigmatic and paradoxical force that the bees seem to obey, and that the reason of man has never come to understand.”  

Substitute humanity for the bees in that sentence and we gain a clear insight into every level of meaning the film contains. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

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