Friday, March 18, 2016

Watch This: The Spirit of the Beehive

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Co-written and directed by Victor Erice

In a remote Spanish village on the Castilian plain, a truck rumbles into the central square, preceded by a gaggle of excited children shouting, "The movie's coming!  The movie's coming!"  They swarm around the rear of the truck, in awe at the stacks of film reels piled inside.  Later that afternoon, the children crowd into the cramped town hall with other villagers for a screening of the classic 1931 horror film, Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the monster.

So begins The Spirit of the Beehive, one of the greatest Spanish films of all time, and one the best films ever made about the power of cinema.  Although Frankenstein only factors directly into the storyline in the opening sequence, its powerful effect on the film's child protagonists will dominate the remainder of the film.

Among the audience members in the town hall are two young sisters, Ana and Isabel (played by Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería).  Ana in particular is captivated by the movie, especially the scene in which the monster is befriended by a young girl tossing flowers into a lake.  Those who have seen Frankenstein will recall that this sequence ends tragically, with the monster accidentally drowning the girl, only to be killed later by vengeful townspeople.  Later that night, as they lie in bed, Ana asks her sister why the monster killed the girl, and why the villagers then killed him.  Isabel, in the age-old tradition of older siblings who taunt their younger, more impressionable brothers and sisters with scary stories, replies that they didn't kill him, and that everything in movies is fake.  She goes on to say that the monster is really a spirit that she herself has seen near their village, a bodiless entity that can disguise itself to look like anyone, and who can only be seen by someone who is its friend.

The next day, Isabel points out an old abandoned house where she says the monster lives.  We see Ana return to the house later by herself.  She finds an adult-sized footprint in the mud that seems to be fresh, but there is no one around.  However, she comes back again to find a sleeping man, haggard and dirty, who is armed and has a wound on his leg above the ankle.  We understand that he is hiding from the authorities, but it is unclear whether Ana believes this man to be another incarnation of the spirit her sister told her about.  She is eager to help him, bringing him food, clothes, and a pocket watch that belong to her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez).  After the fugitive is later shot and killed, the stolen articles are returned to Ana's father.  When he brings the pocket watch out at dinner, winding it up to play music just as the fugitive did, Ana realizes that something has happened to her new friend.  She rushes to the abandoned house, finding only a bloodstain, and when her concerned father appears in the doorway, she is frightened and runs away, perhaps mistakenly thinking that he is the one responsible for the death of the fugitive.  As search parties comb the countryside looking for her, Ana's fantasy world begins to intrude further upon her reality, leading to an intensely powerful confrontation with the product of her imagination.

The story of The Spirit of the Beehive is told primarily from a child's point of view, and provides an evocative portrait of the way children's imaginations shape their understanding of the world.  Ana's failure to comprehend that what she sees in movies is not real, along with her ready belief in her sister's spooky stories, is emblematic of young children whose rich imaginings and curiosity about the world lead them to accept the uncanny as part of their everyday reality.  This child's perspective is apparent right from the opening credits, which play over images of children's drawings, ending with a zoom into a picture that includes the caption "Once upon a time ... ."  The film's score, especially the recurring flute and piano motif, also lends the film a fairy tale quality.  Many scenes in the film, even before the final scenes after Ana has run away, offer keen depictions of a child's inner life.  In one sequence, for example, we see Isabel painting her lips with the blood from her finger after being bitten by the family cat, then lying on the floor and pretending to be dead.

The scenes with the girls are intercut with the daily activities of their parents, and we get a portrait of domestic life that suggests detachment and anxiety.  The girls' mother (Teresa Gimpera) rides her bicycle to the nearest train station to mail a letter she's written, and stares longingly at the train as it pulls away from the station.  Later, we see her lying on her side in bed, pretending to sleep as her husband readies himself for bed, and she again has a look of longing in her eyes as she hears the sound of a train passing in the distance.  Her husband is preoccupied with his hobby of beekeeping, writing in his journal about the activity inside the hive, and the honeycomb-like pattern on the windowpane in his study is itself suggestive of a beehive.  Even the film's form hints at the family's disconnectedness.  The parents and children are never once shown together during the entire film.

Some viewers may find the film's storytelling style a bit puzzling, as many character motivations and actions are merely suggested.  The film is set in 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War, but there are only hints of the conflict's aftermath.  The wounded fugitive is perhaps the most obvious of these, but there is also the postmark on one of the mother's letters, which makes it clear that she's corresponding with someone in a Red Cross camp in France.  Likewise, it is never made explicitly clear how young Ana interprets the presence of the fugitive and his subsequent death.  However, the film's enigmatic plotting is one of the aspects that make it such a beguiling, dreamlike viewing experience.

The Spirit of the Beehive was produced near the end of the decades-long dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, and there has been some debate about the film's political content.  As mentioned above, the film only deals indirectly with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and life in Franco's Spain, but its use of fantasy and allegory, as well as its portrayal of domestic disconnection and repression, have been seen as a form of critique.  However, like many other international films of the period (the great 1967 Czech comedy The Firemen's Ball comes to mind), The Spirit of the Beehive can be enjoyed without knowledge of its political subtext.  With its haunting portrayal of children's fantasy lives, it remains a vital and timeless cinematic work.

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