The Spirit of the Beehive

29 Aug

Director: Victor Erice (1973)

I have always held Spanish cinema close to my heart whether it be as a procrastinatory toold for revising for my Spanish exams at university, lusting after the various beautiful protagonists or simply admiring the instantly recognisable style of these films. The Spirit of the Beehive was ranked #23 in Empire’s “100 Best Films of World Cinema” and yet somehow it has managed to pass me by.

Set in 1940s Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Erice’s debut film is said to have inspired Guillermo Del Torro’s Pans Labryinth in its breathtaking portrayal of childhood innocence in the face of the darkness of adult life. It is easy to see why.

When a travelling cinema brings James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) to a quiet little Castille village, Ana (Ana Torent) finds herself more intrigued than terrified of the monster. Asking her older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria) why the monster kills the young girl and why the villagers later kill him, she simply replies to her sister’s somewhat existential question for a 6 year old by saying they aren’t dead since they aren’t real. She tells Anna the monster is actually a spirit and that if she closes her eyes and calls him, she will be able to see him. The sisters go to an abandoned barn, a blur on the desolate landscape perfectly illustrating how Erice imbues every detail of the film with the sense of isolation and despair that began the Francoist regime. Unlike her sister’s claims, Ana can’t see the monster.

However, when a Loyalist soldier on the run from Franco’s army hides in the barn, Ana feeds and clothes him believing him to be the host for Frankenstein’s spirit.

There is very little plot and very little in the realm of character progression, a fact that has led this film to be declared a ‘mood piece’. Now, while this phrase may ring the bells of pretentious overindulgent cinema, the term ‘mood piece’ could not be better suited. With a notable lack of dialogue, The Spirit of the Beehive is an eerily quiet film. However, the very silence of the film- often void of dialogue and even incidental music- gives the film a certain pensive quality, almost mimiking Ana’s own retreat into her own mind as she contemplates the existence of the monster and her questions about death. It is a rare feat to make a film so effortlessly graceful and peaceful yet still allow a feeling of terror and mystery to flow through its every frame. The film is a first class ticket into the inner life of a child who is learning about the darkness of life, made all the more poignant by her innocence and her ignorant bliss about the turbulence and oncoming darkness of the Francoist regime after the Civil War.

For me the highlight of the film comes in a tiny package, namely that of Ana Torent. Made all the more adorable when I discovered that Erice renamed her character to her own name due to her confusion on different names on and off screen, the inquisitive innocence she brings to the role set the bar for any child performance so high that I cannot think of any subsequent performance that has topped it. It is often easy to attribute a great child performance to the script but in this predominantly silent film we are instead treated to a stripped back, natural performance.

Like the bees her father’s beehive, Ana exists in a world of corridors and perpetual buzzing as thoughts and whisphered phrases clutter and confuse. She must fearlessly navigate her way through to make up her own mind about the questions that are never answered for her. Determined and emotionless, when she finally encounters the monster, reflected in the water, she does not seem afraid- it’s almost a calming influence. Finally she has an answer to what is real. (Or was it the mushrooms?) Bathed in moonlight on an open balcony, she closes her eyes, intimating the call to the spirit… Whether Isabel was right and this is how the monster will appears becomes irrelevant. Ana now has an opportunity for control, to make her own decision and explore the great questions of the world by herself.

The Spirit of the Beehive is a slow paced, calming film, which is by no means a bad thing, instead allowing you to experience cinema at its most raw and emotive, using sound and silence, light and dark, to make us truly experience Erice’s commentary on childhood innocence and fascist regimes.

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