The waves of now have washed me away from movies like this. I have spent the last few months watching and reviewing as many contemporary movies as I can, all in an effort to remain relevant to today’s torrent of online movie writers. It’s been a blast, sure, but I miss returning every now and again to the Silent Era, or to film noirs, or to a decade like the 1970s that produced a movie like this, The Spirit Of The Beehive.
Widely regarded as the best Spanish film of all time, The Spirit Of The Beehive is proof that children will always hold on to their beliefs, no matter how illogical, despite mockery, adversity and adult scorn. Its little heroine, Ana (Ana Torrent), mistakes a dreadful moment in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) for a seed of enlightenment and spends the rest of the movie absorbed in the seed’s glow.
The moment is when The Monster, played immortally by Boris Karloff, sits by the lake with the little girl and finds an odd interest in floating flower petals. Beehive cleverly cuts what happens next, probably to shield young viewers from the horror of what really happened, and jumps straight to the little girl’s father carrying her corpse through the streets of the village; The Monster has run off in shame. See, what happened was that The Monster, having run out of petals, wondered if the little girl would also float. Turns out, she missed the lesson where they taught the dog paddle.
Ana is confused by this. Why did The Monster kill the girl if he enjoyed her company? Her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) explains: “Everything in the movie is fake. It’s all a trick. But he is real. I’ve seen him. He’s a spirit, and he will come when you call him”. The anchor of this line is embedded in the ages of Ana and Isabel. Ana is about 6; Isabel slightly older, 8 maybe. They stand upon that great divide — Ana is at that age where things don’t make sense, and the words of an older sibling are usually taken as sworn truth. Isabel is at that age where she thinks she can make sense of the world, and enjoys practical jokes, both physical and verbal. What she tells Ana about The Monster is a lie, a practical joke. Ana thinks it’s true.
Not far from their house is an abandoned shack where Isabel says The Monster lives. Day after day Ana visits, hoping to see something. One day she does: A fleeing soldier has stumbled off the train and taken refuge in the shack. Could he be the monster? He seems friendly enough. He’s wounded. She cares for him. It’s dangerous.
Beehive requires some background knowledge. It requires its viewers to know that in 1940 (the year the film is set) the Spanish Civil War had just ended and Franco’s dictatorship was about to take hold. The fleeing soldier is on the losing side, and any ties Ana has to him could prove perilous for her family. These are issues too big and broad for a 6-year old to comprehend, but Torrent’s face is so filled with a knowing innocence that we might not be surprised if she actually knows what’s going on and is acting against her better judgements.
Her father is Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), a beekeeper whose house is a mansion and whose study is a library. He’s fascinated by the “comings and goings” of bees and records poems about them in his diary. His wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), records thoughts of adultery in letters and sends them off to nameless men far away. She and Fernando never speak. Indeed, they are hardly in the same room at the same time. There is a virtuoso scene in which the camera is fixed on Teresa as she lies in bed and Fernando enters the bedroom. She stirs, closes her eyes, pretends to be asleep. We see Fernando’s shadow slip into bed beside her. Still the camera doesn’t move. Her eyes open, her head turned away. She sighs. Not a single word of dialogue, yet volumes are spoken.
Director Víctor Erice has created a world of gold. His shots are bathed in oranges and reds and browns, and his locations always seem to be isolated and barren. Consider the house of the family. It is huge, yet empty. Doors upon doors lead to nowhere. Rooms are vacant. The two girls are always alone. Fernando knows no other room except his study. There is a reason for this: Erice wants his girls to explore the world outside, to stay true to their convictions and discover for themselves what happens when dreams are chased and caught. Ana has been on an adventure. At the end, she arrives at a state of serenity. One can almost imagine her rising off the ground, in a kind of hypnotic levitation, in reach of Nirvana. I wonder if The Monster would have found that interesting.
Best Moment | Isabel’s prank in which she feigns a break-in and death. It’s a very suspenseful scene and Torrent puts up a brave front to be able to wrangle it herself.
Worst Moment | Nope.