Friday, March 01, 2019

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

El espíritu de la colmena, Spain, 98 minutes
Director: Victor Erice
Writers: Angel Fernandez Santos, Victor Erice
Photography: Luis Cuadrado
Music: Luis de Pablo
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Cast: Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Juan Margallo, Jose Villasante

The Spirit of the Beehive announces itself almost right away as a fairy tale. "Once upon a time..." says an early title card illustrated by a child's crayon drawing. "Somewhere on the Castilian plain, around 1940," says the next. That puts us in Spain shortly after the Spanish Civil War, so already the extremes of the fairy tale spectrum have been laid out, from a drawing you can put on your refrigerator to the brutalities of midcentury war. In fact, The Spirit of the Beehive has much the feel of a desperate Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice minus the sexual charge, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Grapes of Wrath, I Married a Dead Man, The Day of the Locust. But it's one that's told mostly from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl, at knee-high level, like a cartoon about cats and dogs. There is much about the world of grown-ups that is caught only in flashes, at random. Adults are confusing and hard to understand.

Early on, the small religious village, isolated in the country, welcomes the arrival of a new movie with much excitement and interest—the original 1931 Frankenstein, evidently nine years late. The theater is a makeshift venue with folding chairs and the feel of blankets covering windows, but the movie is well attended, including the 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) with her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria). Isabel is a typical jealous older sibling, devoting too much of her energy to belittling her younger sister. The Spirit of the Beehive actually enters the theater during the show and spends a few minutes letting us watch the scenes from Frankenstein where the monster meets the little girl by the water and discovers the joys of flowers. We also see some of the scenes after the little girl is found dead. Ana can't make sense of it. She asks Isabel the two questions by which The Spirit of the Beehive is essentially defined, or haunted: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?

Isabel doesn't have the answers to those questions any more than you or me. Instead, she makes up stories to get inside Ana's head. She tells Ana everything in the movies is fake. She says the monster is real and can be contacted at an abandoned building she shows her near a well. She says the monster is only a spirit and not everyone can see it. She tells Ana any old contradictory thing she can think of, if it might provoke anxiety. Usually it does, because big-eyed Ana is as fearful of things like ghosts and the dark as any 7-year-old. But Isabel's teasing also has the effect of helping Ana find her courage, like tempering steel. A point comes, unknown to Isabel, when Ana is able to visit the abandoned building and well by herself, even in the dark.

What she finds there, not really able to distinguish reality from fantasy—throwing us as viewers into a similar state of confusion, which is how the movie catches us unaware more than once—is a kind of echo or reverberation of the recently concluded war and its displacements and fierce hostilities. To Ana, it's the spirit of the monster, perhaps, somehow more human and handsome, or at least someone in need. To us, it's another hobo type riding the rails in bad times, down on his heels but making his way. To her parents, it is a marauding thief and possibly worse. His ultimate fate is summary and shocking, even as we see the likelihood that the parents' view is closest to reality. It's one of those incidents that doesn't make sense to adults either, down at the level of being robbed and violated, and it might be hard to say what an appropriate response could be.

Director and cowriter Victor Erice is not someone I know, but his misty attention to place and landscape reminds me of Terrence Malick, definitely Days of Heaven (which conceivably could have been under the influence of Beehive), but also the way Malick casually mixed up innocence and horrors in Badlands. When we finally figure out what Ana is doing, the movie suddenly feels alive, dangerous, and a little sickening, like the finish to Heavenly Creatures. When Ana's father confronts her and she realizes she has misbehaved, and starts to understand how seriously, she can't face it and runs away. That leads to a remarkable overnight sequence involving the Frankenstein monster, a thunderbolt of cinema both for its lyricism and for its audacity and probably the movie's main calling card, leaving us plenty of wiggle room on what actually happened for later discussions over pie and coffee.

I can't speak, of course, to any underlying themes regarding Spanish fascism, other than to note it's a movie about early fascism made during the period of late fascism, and as with gays for centuries it was thus required to blend in any themes of criticism or resistance artfully if not invisibly. You have to figure something is going on with monsters, innocence, and violence, but The Spirit of the Beehive is universal enough that it stands on its own too, as a potent coming of age tale. All fans of the 1931 Frankenstein movie should appreciate it at least a little.

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