Monday, 25 August 2008

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973, Spain, Victor Erice)

Erice's breathtaking film was set during the initial years of the Franco regime, but was made during its final years. Needless to say, it's unlikely that it could have been made when the regime was at its strongest. Despite it not being overtly too critical of the regime, its sufficiently subtle in its approach - is the theme of loss of childhood innocence a reflection on the loss of innocence after a bloody civil war that had deposed a legitimate government?

Set in a village in Castile, a Francoist stronghold, a screening of James Whale's 1931 horror classic 'Frankenstein' becomes a community event. Whilst other children are frightened by the film, Ana (Ana Torrent), a young girl, is touched by the more poignant moments in the film, such as when Frankenstein's monster meets a young girl by a pond and plays with her. When her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) explains that the spirit of the monster lives in an abandoned outhouse in the village as a joke, Ana wants to befriend this spirit. A Republican soldier is now hiding there, and Ana tends to his injuries and brings him food, believing him to be the monster's spirit and their relationship to be similar to that between the monster and the young girl Ana identified with. However, is Ana helping the soldier or making his discovery more likely?

Ana's retreat into fantasy and identification with the film is possibly the consequence of a disintegrating family unit. Her father, a scientist is obsessed with bee-keeping and related experiments and there's barely any kind of relationship with his younger wife, who writes letters to her loved ones. In fact, you notice that there are no scenes at all with all family members in the frame at the same time. The only instance they're all together, at the dinner table, no two family members are in the same frame. Ana herself abandons her family temporarily - having given the soldier her father's watch, we know that the soldier is then discovered and murdered by the gunfire in the night. Ana doesn't know this, and only discovers then when her father deliberately and cruelly pulls out the watch at the dinner table. This completely shocks her since in the film, she could not understand why the community turned on and killed the monster - to her, this murder of the soldier just echoes that. This society is still divided and will turn on its "enemies". This is a disjointed family, perhaps reflective of Spain as a whole during Franco or at least certainly in its initial years when the entire nation was polarised by war. Is the imagery of the community of bees and windows in beehive shapes reflective of community under Fascism - ordered, organised, but devoid of individuality or imagination? Is Ana the only hope, the only individual in a homogeneous society?

Driven by the superb performance of Ana Torrent (who would later appear in Alejandro Amenabar's debut film 'Tesis') - which is surely one of the finest ever delivered by a child actor; believe me, she'll break your heart, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is one of the most poignant films ever about childhood and the loss of innocence. This scenario acts as an allegory if you like for the wider society under Franco; a society that is still divided but has hope in Ana. The constant reference to bees and beehives might reflect an increasingly organised society under Fascism; one that is ordered and controlled, where individuality is suppressed in the name of homogeneity. Featuring breathtaking cinematography from a near blind Luis Cuadrado, where the yellows dominate each shot, and a correct lack of dialogue - Erice never allows his characters to speak more than they need to, and a sense of isolation and lack of communication is precisely what is needed, 'The Spirit of the Beehive' is a moving and heartfelt account of life under Fascism. 4.5/5


Andrew K said...

I saw it recently, and as a good review should, your piece has deepened my perception of the film. Will give it another look soon.
To put it a little crudely, the father needed someting of a kick up the arse to spark him into something approaching life.

tentas said...

nice review