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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Spirit of the Beehive

beehive_anasad

Director: Victor Erice
Country: Spain
Year: 1973

“Everyone has the capacity to create and recreate within them. And a film doesn’t exist unless it is seen—if there are no eyes to look at the images, the images don’t exist. When I’ve finished a film, it’s no longer mine—it belongs to the people. I’m nothing more than an intermediary in the process.”
Victor Erice

“Erice reminds us of how much we have lost in a time when the rapture of cinema has fallen out of fashion.”
Paul Julian Smith

“…a haunting mood piece that dispenses with plot and works its spells through intricate patterns of sound and image”
Tony Rayns

“Every magic hour, light-drenched image in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive is filled with mysterious dread…There’s something voluptuous about the cinematography, and this suits the sense of emerging sexuality in the girls, especially in the scene where Isabel speculatively paints her lips with blood from her own finger…[and] Torrent, with her severe, beautiful little face, provides an eerily unflappable presence to center the film. The one time she smiles, it’s like a small miracle, a glimpse of grace amid the uneasiness of black cats, hurtling black trains, devouring fire and poisonous mushrooms. These signs of dismay haunt the movie.”
Dan Callahan

“The story that emerges from [Erice’s] lovely, lovingly considered images is at once lucid and enigmatic, poised between adult longing and childlike eagerness, sorrowful knowledge and startled innocence.”
A.O. Scott

Background

Victor Erice was born in the Biscay province of Spain in 1940. He studied law, political science, and economics at the University of Madrid, studied film direction at the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografia (I’ll bet that means something like “The Official School of Cinematography”), wrote film criticism and directed some short films before directing his acknowledged masterpiece, The Spirit of the Beehive, in 1973.

Widely hailed as Spain’s newest auteur, Erice went on to direct only two other full-length films in the following three decades: The South in 1982 (“Erice creates his film as a canvas, conjuring painterly images of slow dissolves and shafts of light that match Caravaggio in their power to animate a scene of stillness, or freeze one of mad movement,” raved Tony Rayns), and The Quince Tree Sun in 1992. He also directed short episodes for two “portmanteau” films: The Challenges in 1970, and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet in 2002. In 2006, he directed a 32-minute short for a festival featuring his films and those of Abbas Kiarostami, to whom Erice is often compared. (See also: Terence Malick.)

Erice spends the lengthy periods between his films writing, painting, and directing television commercials.

Things you should know about today’s film:

It is set in 1940, coincidentally the year of the director’s birth. In 1940, the Spanish Civil War had been won by Franco, but he was still rounding up and shooting dissidents. This may at least partially account for the pall of adult silence and the creeping dread that suffuses the film.

Although the sun-glazed, sensuous cinematography of Beehive is rightly lauded, it was revealed years later that Luis Cuadrado, the cinematographer of record, was almost entirely blind at the time.

Synopsis

During the opening titles, we see childish drawings of beehives, trains, barns, cats, a magician, and a girl standing in a fire.

“Once upon a time… Somewhere on the Castilian Plain, around 1940…”

A truck enters a small, dusty village. “The movie’s coming!” chant the children. A toothless woman toots a toy trumpet and makes an announcement in the town square: tonight’s movie will be Frankenstein!

At the appointed time, everyone arrives at the cinema, carrying their own chairs.

The single lightbulb is unscrewed, and the movie begins. “Prepare yourselves,” warns the man on the screen. “You may be shocked, or even horrified…”

Now it is some time later, and a man in a protective suit is inspecting a row of beehives.

A woman named Teresa is writing to a lover, separated from her by the war: “Little but the walls are left of the house you once knew. I often wonder what became of everything we had there…”

A train arrives, and Teresa puts the letter in a mailbox attached to the train. Soldiers on the train look at her sadly.

Fernando the beekeeper, who is Teresa’s husband, returns to his estate.

“Where is my wife?” he demands. “Where are the girls?” “Probably at the movie,” the maid replies. From his office window, he can hear the sound of the movie across the street.

The movie continues, to a rapt audience.

Frankenstein’s monster tosses flowers into the water, and accidentally drowns poor little Maria.

Two young girls in the audience whisper to each other. “Isabel, why did he kill her?” asks Ana. “I’ll tell you later,” replies her sister. These are the children of Teresa and Fernando.

That night, safely in bed, Ana demands the promised answer from her sister.

Nobody really died, responds Isabel. It’s all a fake. “Besides,” she adds, “I’ve seen him alive.”

And thus, my friends, the tragic events are set into motion! Or at least that’s my guess!

He hangs out in a secret place near the village, but nobody can see him because he’s a spirit, Isabel elaborates, warming to the subject. Also, he only comes out at night. If you close your eyes and call to him, he’ll come and visit you, Isabel insists, and sure enough, as soon as Ana closes her eyes, shuffling footsteps are heard.

Of course, that’s just Fernando, pacing in his office, but what do children know? Silly, ignorant little children, with their magical thinking! Will they never learn?

Sleepless in his office, Fernando listens to a homemade shortwave radio, makes tea, smokes cigarettes, and writes in his diary: “Someone to whom I recently showed my glass beehive… the relentless yet ineffectual toil, the fevered comings and goings… quickly looked away, with an expression of indescribable sadness and horror.”

When Fernando finally comes to bed, Teresa pretends to be asleep.

Also of note: The windows in their house are yellow glass with a honeycomb pattern. Almost as if the humans inside are actually bees, living in a hive!

Make Of That What You Will.

In school, the teacher props up a cutout figure of a man. “Poor Don José,” she says to the class. “What is he missing?”

“A heart!” they answer raucously, and a student is therefore assigned to place a bright red heart-shaped cutout on Don José’s chest.

Lungs? Stomach? By the end of the lesson, Don José has a full complement of internal organs, but no eyes. Ana places the eye pieces on the appropriate hooks. “Now Don José can see,” the teacher proclaims, somewhat ominously.

Ana and Isabel, walking home from school, stop by the edge of a vast field.

“See the house with the well?” asks Isabel, pointing to the opposite edge of the field. That’s where he lives, Isabel tells her younger sister, and so the two girls decide to investigate.

Their initial reconnaissance is inconclusive, but Ana begins returning to the spooky house with the well every day on her way home from school. Once, she finds a man’s footprint, but she never sees the Spirit.

“That’s because he doesn’t know you,” Isabel tells her later.

On a mushroom-hunting expedition, their father tells the two girls how to distinguish between delicious mushrooms, like Trumpets and Chanterelles, and those other mushrooms, which will kill you instantly. He tells them about a magical garden of mushrooms on the mountain, and swears them to secrecy.

The girls extra-curricular activities continue: if they’re not poking around the ghost house…

…they’re pressing their ears against the railroad tracks, listening for approaching trains.

Ana teases the bees in their hive and looks through mysterious old photo albums. Isabel casually tries to strangle the family cat, which retaliates by scratching her finger.

Unfazed, she daubs the blood onto her lips and admires herself in a mirror.

Ana, banging away on Fernando’s typewriter, hears a scream. Isabel lies on the floor of her room, unconscious or dead.

Ana closes the patio doors gently, and whispers in her sister’s ear: “He’s not here anymore.”

Ana searches the house for an adult, but finds no one. Returning to the room, she finds her sister’s body missing. A shuffling figure moves in the dark corner. Massive, gloved hands seize Ana from behind! Of course it is Isabel, not dead at all, wearing Fernando’s beekeeping biohazard suit. Ana has been Punk’d!

There is a bonfire. Isabel and her friends leap through the flames. Ana watches, lost in her own thoughts.

That night, while the rest of the house sleeps, Ana quietly dresses and leaves. A soldier jumps from a passing train and takes refuge in the ghost house. As the sun rises, Ana returns to her bed. “Where were you?” whispers Isabel. But Ana does not answer.

Now Ana has befriended the soldier, bringing him food and clothing.

Luckily, he does not appear to be a pedophile. There is gunfire in the ghost house that night, and we can only assume that the soldier has been arrested, or worse.

Fernando is summoned by the police. His coat and his special musical stopwatch have been found on the corpse of a criminal, killed while resisting arrest.

Ana returns to the ghost house and finds blood. Fernando is also there. Ana runs away across the windswept fields.

By nightfall, Ana has not returned. A search party is raised, and they sweep slowly through the forest with flashlights and dogs. Ana, gazing into a moonlit pond, sees, not her own reflection, but that of Frankenstein’s monster.

The Monster reaches for Ana, and she closes her eyes…

The next morning, she is found by the search party, catatonic but alive.

Life resumes for adults and children, but things are not the same. Ana no longer speaks; she has retreated into her fantasies. On the balcony at night, she calls silently to the Spirit.

What I Liked

The performances by the two girls were nothing short of astonishing; wide-eyed, devious, inquisitive, innocent, goofy, amoral… absolutely believable and utterly riveting.

The burnished “magic hour” golds and dusty browns of the cinematography: Gorgeous.

I loved the measured pacing, the growing sense of dread, the mysteries left unexplained.

In short, this has now become one of my favorite films in this series.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

Only one scene in the film rang false for me: The moment when Frankenstein’s Monster actually appears on-screen, squatting next to Ana. Up until that point, everything was subjective and mysterious, as it should be. Suddenly, we see a kinda silly-looking Monster and our main character together in the frame, and it’s overly literal, anticlimactic.

That is my only quibble; the rest of the film is stunningly assured; mystical and enthralling.

Should You See It?

Yes, you should see it. It’s a bit slow, and the expected cathartic scene of horror never actually comes to pass, so you may feel disappointed by that (I was, a bit). Just accept that, and enjoy the film as it is: A magical, sumptuous, creepy, and ineffably sad masterpiece.

Next: La Strada

One Comment

  1. “Spirit of the Bee Hive” is another one of those films in this collection that is hard for me to grasp. This is, certainly, not a “classic” film as I see it and with “Seven Samurai” in the rearview mirror and “La Strada” just around the corner (both films that show up in Best Of lists – and films I’ve actually HAVE HEARD ABOUT) – I really don’t know where “Spirit” fits into the mix.

    Here’s the story as I comprehend it. Small Italian town. Husband and wife are on the “outs” – why? She sleeps in a bed…alone (and writes to a former lover). He sleeps at his desk…alone (and picks mushrooms and hangs out with bees). It’s all we need to know. They have two daughters. Anna and another one. The other one is, maybe, a year older or two. Just at that age where the older child wants to f*ck with the younger child. If you’ve had a sibling who is slightly older…you know this. They’re the ones who tell you Santa isn’t real, they’re the ones who tell you that you’re eating worms when you’re eating spaghetti, they’re the ones that try to trade you a nice shiny new penny for that ugly dirty beat-up dollar bill (I only fell for this a couple times until I wised up).

    After Anna and her older sister go see “Frankenstein” (yes, the original) – Anna has the jitters (who wouldn’t) and it’s her sister who encourages the jitters. Disturbed by the scene where the monster has killed the little girl, Anna fears the same is going to happen to her.

    The next day they wander to the outskirts of town where there is an old decrepit farm house and well. Then…they travel to the hillsides and pick mushrooms where their old man gives them some lessons on which ones are to pick and which ones will kill you.

    The well. Frankenstein. Creepy older sister. Estranged parents. Deadly ‘shrooms. This is ALL playing up to SOMETHING. I know it is! At some point someone’s going to die. They just GOTTA!

    So the story continues to meander through their lives and the older sibling continues to torment her little sister – even pretending to be DEAD!

    Then the story takes a twist that you don’t see coming. A enemy soldier, on the run, falls off a train and takes refuge in the farm house near the well. When Anna discovers him, she thinks he’s the spirit that her older sister says she can summon at will (SISTERS!) so she befriends him. Bringing him water or food or socks or something.

    But…in the night…he is discovered and dispatched with some machine guns. When Anna returns to the farm, all that remains is some bloody hay and a father who is questioning what she was doing on the farm with an enemy soldier. Well, papa, if you weren’t sooooo involved in eating mushrooms and ignoring mommy while you work on your “book” maybe I’d be playing hopscotch or pitching pennies or reading Nancy Drew….but NO! So off she runs.

    Off into the woods, into the night…away from home. Soon Mommy and Daddy are working together to track down their daughter. Even the older sister gets involved (about time). The town comes out to find her, too. And in a moment of pure clarity, while looking down at one of the “deadly” mushrooms, Frankenstein shows up (but it’s dad LOOKING like Frankenstein – not Boris Karloff). She runs some more.

    At any moment I expected to find Anna dead. Drowned in the well. Dead from fungus. SOMETHING. But…no. They find her, take her home and rehabilitate her back to the land of the living. Do mom and dad reconcile? Well, there are hints of that. Does older sister wise up that maybe telling stories about ghosts and pretending to be dead isn’t a good way to help your sister grow up? Possibly. But all-in-all, everything seems to come out all right in the end.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    The acting by the children actors was very good. The girl playing Anna has one of those expressionless faces that tells you everything but tells you nothing (allowing the audience to project their own emotions onto the actor).

    The other actors were fine.

    Cinematography and print work was very high quality.

    WHAT I DISLIKED:

    Again, and sorry to beat a dead horse, but there’s really no story here. There’s very little hint of real conflict until the soldier shows up and he’s gone about 10 minutes later. Certainly there was enough of “anticipation of conflict” that I was drawn into the story but I wanted more out of the story. I wanted MORE conflict. More passion. More movement. As it stands – the story just sort of lays there – with no real resolutions.

    Though there is some stuff about beehives – the story really has no spirit of a beehive about it. Where’s the Queen? Where’s the buzzing around? Where’s the constant activity? Not here.

    OVERALL:

    Interesting. But not one I would recommend. If I was doing a “watch these films in this order” – I would probably put this down about 44, 45.

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