The Spirit of the Beehive
October 17, 2006
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) begins with the words, “Once upon a time…” and we are transported to a small village in the Castilian Plain in Spain, 1940 on the tail end of a horrible civil war that has ravished the country. The village seems like a ghost town with all of its vitality drained by the war. The children are excited because a new movie has arrived. They marvel over the number of cans of film and inquire excitedly about the kind of movie it is, which turns out to be Frankenstein (1931).
The screening is announced to the entire village with a sizable turnout. One gets the impression that there is little outside entertainment and anything that arrives is devoured by these young minds hungry for this kind of visual stimuli. The children are fascinated by the movie, in particular two girls, Isabel (Telleria) and her sister Ana (Torrent). Ana is mystified as to why Frankenstein’s monster killed the little girl in the movie. That scene has a profound effect on the girls and they are fascinated by the notions of life and death. Isabel tries to strangle the family cat to see what it is like and then fakes unconsciousness in order to trick Ana.
Their mother (Gimpera) writes a letter to a loved one presumably involved in the civil war and she wonders if she’ll ever see him again. Her husband (Gomez) is a beekeeper and the film draws parallels between the bees’ activity and that of the children. Both parents seem detached from each other and their children and we rarely see them all together.
When they are not in school, Ana and Isabel play in the countryside and come across an abandoned farm, its crops long dried up and blown away – the desolate structure has clearly seen better times. Later on, a deserter from the war takes refuge in the farmhouse and Ana meets him and gives him food and a jacket to keep warm. He is later found and killed by the authorities. The realization of his death causes her to runaway. The two girls are precious, especially Ana who is adorable but in a genuine and unassuming way.
Victor Erice’s film is beautifully shot. In one scene we see Ana and Isabel run through a vast landscape from on top of a hill. The plains seem to stretch on forever in this captivating pastoral setting. Erice also uses a yellowish tint throughout the movie that evokes the look of a faded photograph. There is a real air of mystery to The Spirit of the Beehive as Ana and Isabel’s motivations are never explained but rather left up to the viewer to ponder. Nothing is spelled out in this minimalist film with a deliberately slow pace that only enhances its haunting atmosphere.
“Footprints of a Spirit” is a retrospective documentary about the movie. The first image that inspired Erice’s film was that of Frankenstein’s monster with a little girl. This documentary attempts to trace the film’s origins including revisiting the town that was used. Many of the locations still exist but its population has decreased and it still looks as desolate as ever. We also get an idea of the turbulent time period that the film was made (Franco’s dictatorship) and how it affected its content.
“Victor Erice in Madrid” is an interview with the director from 2000 as he talks about how he met Ana Torrent and his impressions of her at the time. Like her character, she was not yet able to differentiate between fact and fiction and so all of her reaction shots were real. Erice speaks very thoughtfully about various aspects of his movie in this excellent extra.
There is also an interview with actor Fernando Fernan Gomez conducted in Madrid, 2006. When he got the role in The Spirit of the Beehive, he was between jobs and anxious to find work. He didn’t understand the script and even told the producer as much but got the role anyway. Gomez also talks about his approach to acting and tells a few filming anecdotes as well.
Finally, Linda C. Ehrlich, a film scholar who wrote a book about Enrice’s films, talks about the allure of this movie. She says that it is indeed hard to understand completely and also unforgettable as well. She goes on to analyze various aspects of this movie in a very intelligent fashion.