The Spirit of the Beehive [1973] – A Majestic Vision of a Child’s Inner Life

                                             The first time I watched Victor Erice’s lyrical masterpiece “The Spirit of the Beehive” (aka 'El espiritu de la colmena', 1973) it was a bit confounding experience. The understated beauty of its visuals and the haunting performance of 6 year old Ana Torrent had a great effect on me, but felt that I was unable to infiltrate through its multiple layers of ambiguity, in order to understand the narrative significance and restrained emotions. Then other through IMDb boards and other forums, I learned how the movie’s political & historical setting is crucial. The opening shot mentions “Somewhere on the Castilian plain around 1940”, a time when the traumatic Spanish Civil War had ended and General Franco won over the Republicans. Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975. I also came across a fact that the film was nearly banned due to its sympathetic portrayal of a Republican fighter (but censor authorities refrained from banning, since they might have thought that only few people would be interested in watching a slow-paced, art-house movie). After reading about Franco era, I thought I figured out the ‘beehive’s’ intricately layered meaning. Alas, I was wrong because the subsequent viewings strengthened the lingering feeling that “Spirit of the Beehive” shouldn’t be intellectually hacked to discover parallels for the fascist regime of Spain. Of course, it is true that there are allegorical representations about Franco’s time, but Victor Erice’s visual ideas and feelings seems more universal than specific.

                                             “The Spirit of the Beehive” is a simple and unforgettably beautiful film about childhood innocence, its dream and imagination, empowered to a higher extent by the magic of cinema.  Watching the film calms & satisfies me like watching the fleeting beauty of a glorious sunset. Its visual language is up there with the works of cinematic masters Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. The opening credits show children’s drawings with the legendary words “Once upon a time….” expressing its metaphoric nature. The movie opens on a vast Spanish Plain in 1940, where an old truck teeters down a barren road and arrives into the desolate Spanish village ‘Hoyuelo’. The children of the village are excited, shouting “the movie is here!”  The film cans from the truck are unloaded and the owner of touring prints promises that the film going to be a greatest experience of their lives. Soon, old women, men and kids gather inside the public hall to see James Whale’s “Frankenstein”. Two little sisters Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria) are among the audience and they watch with genuine awe and fear, when Boris Karloff’s monster murders the poor, little Maria. The seven year old Ana is imaginative and impressionable than her little older and more reasonable sister Isabel.

                                               Ana and Isabel live in a huge, crumbling mansion with their isolated parents, Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez) and Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), Fernando mostly stays up at the study or tends to his beehives, while Teresa (an old photograph refers her as ‘misanthrope’) spends time alone, writing letters to a exiled loved one. She rides in her bicycle to the railway station to post her letters, but receives no reply. Interestingly, there’s only one time we see Teresa and Fernando in the same frame and we never see the whole family of four within a frame. There’s a vague feeling that the couple’s political affiliations had banished them to this remote countryside.  In the night after watching the film, Ana whispers to Isabel, asking ‘Why did the monster kill the girl; and why was it killed in the end?’ Isabel replies that it’s all just a trick and that she has seen the monster’s spirit in a secret place, somewhere nearby. The inquisitive eyes and graceful face of Ana is innocence personified and the little girl embraces spirits and unknown with openness. But she also encounters little cruelties, betrayals, and gradually discovers the morbid sides of her fantasy.

                                             Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) and “Pans Labyrinth” (2006) were hugely inspired by Victor Erice’s themes and visuals. Both Del Toro’s movies withheld heightened visuals of imagination, but its central theme was about threat to child’s imagination and death of innocence. Barring one dreamy sequence, “The Spirit of the Beehive” the pain and loneliness of the child isn’t expressed through fanciful imagination. But, with little patience we are able to connect with Ana’s existential pain. The abrupt and broad, effects-ridden visuals of Del Toro or Spielberg (whose child characters too bond with imaginative beings) would offer the desired outcome for general viewers, whereas Victor’s work demands us to take in the tiny details and its mystifying quality. Unlike the aforementioned director’s works, “Beehive” isn’t interested in a linear narrative. I read that the director wanted to narrate this tale as older Ana recounting her experiences of childhood. Also, I read in an interview of Victor Erice that he took the significant moment between monster and child (in “Frankenstein”) and called upon his own personal childhood experiences to unfold the story.  So, taking that into account, we can understand why “Beehive” feels like a collection of memories than a coherent tale. Erice, his co-writer Angel Fernandez-Santos and cinematographer Luis Cuadrado wants the viewer to lose track of time and sink into the ‘emotional spaces’ (as referred by Erice himself) of the characters. The beautiful yet the weightlessness nature of the images free us from the narrative hold to marvel at the containment of pure emotions and time (as Mr. Tarkovsky called “Sculpting in Time”). Movies generally use narrative as body, a temporary shell, only to gradually reveal its soul or essence. However, this medium’s eloquent poets like Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos, etc averts the exterior shell (called narrative) to make us marvel at the graceful soul. Sometimes, it is the narrative that boasts the pageantry and sentimental spectacles, whereas these film-makers’ visual embodiment of souls remain alternatively beguiling as well as perplexing. Both the Victor Erice’s films achieve this quality (he made only one feature film after ‘Beehive’, called “The South”).

                                              Primarily, “The Spirit of the Beehive” is about small, painstaking experiences of a girl child which causes burden on her soul. She gains knowledge about death and witnesses the ruthless behavior from loved ones. How much it will shape her as an individual or how it will affect her imagination is left open to interpret, but the central theme deals with battles waged on a child’s imagination and unconditional capability to show love. In “Frankenstein” as well as in this film, the children were able to empathize with the ‘monster’. Maria and Ana relates to the monster’s inherent innocence and naivety, while the adults are repulsed by its physical nature. The ‘spirit’ in the title could represent the paradoxical elements that keeps the bees at its place to serve (bees could be metaphors for mechanized human beings or owing to the political nature, the beehive could be a representation for the closed fascist government). The ‘spirit’ could also be a metaphor for the non-conforming emotions and actions of Ana. By jumping through bonfires, strangling the cat, and enacting death Isabel is intrigued about the pains of life or the point life ends. Her belief in ‘spirits’ have waned, while the inherent innocence is gradually eroding. Ana is intent to hold onto the imagination and innocence, while the knowledge of death and other harsh acts of her parents & Isabel threatens her. In the end, when Ana calls onto the spirit (“It’s me, Ana”) it is evident that her innocence & love haven’t vanished, which also indicates that she could forever be poised between two worlds (the ending is ambiguous and actually invites different interpretations). Is Ana the spirit (non-conforming individual) of the beehive family? In fact, the house’s honey-comb like glass doors are recurrently framed like beehive and the final juxtaposition between bee-hive and honeycomb like doors indicates of the constant emotional agitation of the family members. Apart from the beehive being a thinly veiled allegory for fascist Spain, the mechanical behavior of bees could be related with any of totalitarian regime.

                                             Among the four characters, it is only Ana who moves lot through the frames with an intent to enlarge her emotional space. Fernando, the father, takes the children on a fine morning to pick up for mushrooms and warns them about the poisonous mushrooms (Ana watches how Fernando stomps forcefully at the poisonous mushroom). Then, he points to a faraway beautiful mountains and experiences a rush of nostalgia. The scene subtly indicates how his nostalgic, admonitory behavior fails to connect with daughter Ana, who calmly looks at him. Later, Ana approaches the wounded Republican soldier with little caution, but the soldier without uttering a word could acknowledge the child’s love. Ana divinely smiles when the soldier does a little magic, incorporating him into her emotional space, which isn’t shared much by her own father. Seen from this perspective, we can understand why the realization of soldier’s death had been so traumatic for Ana.

                                                   Director Erice’s elegantly composed images make us marvel at its arrangement. Isabel tells how ‘movies are all fake. It’s a trick’. In one scene, the two sisters converse while making shadow puppets with their hand. The shot is only focused on the shadow puppets, revealing the metaphysical nature of images we are seeing on-screen (or reminding that it’s all shadows on a screen). In another scene, Erice uses a static shot, to observe the sleepless state of Teresa, who after the entry of Fernando (he is not shown within the frame) into the bedroom, acts as if she is sleeping.  The shot lingers for the whole time her husband gets ready for bed, in order to underscore their emotional distance. Towards the ending, we see Teresa entering into Fernando’s study and find him sleeping at the desk. She puts away his book and removes his glasses and covers him with a coat. These two wordless visuals amazingly convey the possible changes in their relationship. This magical way of diffusing information and emotions simply through visuals happens throughout the movie. The more hushed pathways of the imagery may make the viewers ask ‘is this all?’, but the depth and beauty are all there waiting to be discovered. Apart from Victor Erice’s meticulous visuals, it is Ana Torrent’s wondrous eyes that command the film. On the outset, her less expressive performance may make one think of it as bland. But, I felt she carried weight of each emotion. Ana is at loss to fathom all the mysteries happening around her, and the ones she understands heaps burden on her soul. Her brooding eyes and sullen looks convey that burden we ourselves as a child, silently bore after learning life’s endless cruelty. To me, the honest, determined performance of Ana Torrent is one of the best child actor performances in the history of cinema. 


                                                    Victor Erice’s visual poetry “The Spirit of the Beehive” (93 minutes) earnestly explores a girl child’s graceful quest to preserve innocence through poetic imagination. The movie’s hold over me grows and strengthens with each subsequent viewing.


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