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The Spirit of the Beehive, El espíritu de la colmena, is Victor Erice’s debut Spanish drama film. This film is now considered a masterpiece of Spanish Cinema. [1] Released in 1973, the dying days of General Franco’s forty-year dictatorship, the film is set in the Castilian countryside in the year 1940. The movie is experimental but emotion-driven and is more like a fairytale than a harrowing history lesson. (The movie actually does begin with ‘Once upon a time…’)[2]

The film can be seen in two different levels, on one level, it’s about a young girl who becomes obsessively fascinated with ‘Frankenstein’ after seeing it for the first time when a mobile cinema brings it in. Soon, after being lied to about the movie by her older sister, she starts developing an interest in ghosts and spirits as well. This levels plays on a more fantasy like theme and uses a child’s innocence to play out the entire movie, which is a very powerful concept to.

On another level, the film symbolizes the rule of Franco in Spain, which is what most Spanish films did during that time, and shows a family who are ‘locked up in themselves’, unable to avoid the terrible emotional consequences of the civil war and the absolute triumph. [3]

This film however is not just about a national conflict and how people are reacting to the rule of Franco, this is seen in a brief shot of a snapshot of the father and Miguel de Unamuno, who is the famous intellectual who was a brave critic of Franco’s rebellion in a photo album, but about domestic distress. Which is what a viewer called ‘the war behind the window’, Victor gives a more subtle and moving take on the historical trauma suffered by Spain. [4]

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Please ignore the ‘HD’, I am deeply ashamed.

The film has a lead child character, Ana, who symbolizes the ‘new’ (non-Franco) Spain, or in simpler terms, the future. And there is no better way to represent the future than with children and their perspectives. Ana in this film is only 6 years old; this makes her perspective more untainted, pure and innocent. [5]

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The term ‘beehive’ is referring to Spain at that point of time. Similar to trapped bees, workers worked continuously without benefiting from their labor when under Franco’s controlled dictatorship. And just like a trapped beehive, Spain also lacked communication during that historical period. [6] The windows of the house are glazed with hexagonal panes which evokes the beehive of the title. The repeated motive of the beehive pattern draws attention to the symbolic meaning of the items as mentioned.

In the beginning, you can see the father studying beehives with a voiceover of the mother, Teresa writing a letter of devotion to men, turning heads of every man she passes. Then, Ana with her older sister, Isabel, watches Frankenstein along with the town. Ana is instantly captivated by Frankenstein and its interaction with a young girl and this changed the way she sees the world entirely. For an adult, it’s just a troubling scene in a movie but in the innocent mind of Ana, it’s a little spark which lights a thousand inner fires. That moment transforms Ana and she will no longer just be a normal girl, she will become the spirit of the town, which is also referred to as a beehive, thus forming the title ‘Spirit of the Beehive’.[2]

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During the movie, Ana asks Isabel about Frankenstein and his intentions on killing the little girl. In that shot, the stark chiaroscuro lighting creates an eerie effect of two floating faces which parallels the dark shadows found throughout the film. That night, Isabel explains to Ana that ‘Everything in the movie is fake’ and proceeds on lying to her. In a bigger context, Isabel symbolizes the Nationalists who are obsessed with money and power who constantly deceit Ana, who represents the young generation of Republican Spain. [6]

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Ana’s curiosity leads her to explore the location which Isabel claims to have seen the spirit. The scene where it shows Ana standing in the foreground in front of the abandoned barn symbolizes the creation of her fantasy world. The extreme long shot depicts the isolation of Spain during the beginning years of Franco’s regime while the barn and well represents the place Ana meets the ‘spirit of Frankenstein’. The natural lighting and neutral colors also contribute to the sense of seclusion. [6]

The scene where Ana discovers a presence in the barn is a beautiful scene in which Ana’s expression powerfully shows how Ana’s innocence is slowly fading away and tipping the scales towards perception and reality.

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The next scene is the famous scene, in which the two sisters watch a train whiz by them as they stare at it just like they’re frozen, is seen as a metaphor of the old Spain ruled by Franco coming to an end, leaving behind the new Spain.

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The next time Ana visits the abandoned barn, she finds a republican fugitive who was shot in the leg, Ana sees this as ‘her Frankenstein’. She then brings him food and her father’s clothes and they become friends, she even ties his shoelaces for him and he shows her magic tricks. However, that night, the fugitive was shot dead by a civil guard.

The father claims his items at a police station the next day and during breakfast, he opens the pocket watch and a tune plays. The father notices how Ana reacts to the tune and gets suspicious. Ana visits the abandoned barn and sees blood on the rocks; she is able to put the puzzle together but is certain spirits don’t die and dreams to meet him again. Her father catches her in the barn in which she runs away from, also due to the fact she just encountered the loss of a friend.

When Ana’s good intentions are misinterpreted, this sets up a situation that could be potentially dangerous for her and her father. And now, we feel how the behavior of innocent children can lead them into trouble. [7] For the next few days, she then survives alone in the woods and eats a mushroom out of hunger which her father once warned that it is the ‘most poisonous’.

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She then goes to the nearby river and looks at her reflection, this scene almost recreates the scene where Frankenstein sees the young girl. Ana turns around and sees Frankenstein, safe to assume that this is just a hallucination, she remains calm as she remembers them being friends. The next day, the town discovers her and she returns safely to home.

The mother is seen reading a letter and then proceeds to throw it into the fire, this symbolizes the end of an affair. Throughout the entire movie never once are all four members of the family seen in one scene, but with the mother ending her affair after such a traumatic experience (her daughter being missing) this might be the start of the family getting closer.

The movie ends with Ana going to her bedroom window whispering ‘I’m Ana, I’m Ana’, calling for the spirit back.

The Spirit of the Beehive has a 100% score in Rotten Tomatoes and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Spanish cinema. [8] Top Critic from the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris says that ‘This is a modest marvel of grace and framing that unfolds with the patience of a cloud and is driven more by wonder than pure emotion.’ [9] This film is definitely one to watch with lots of clever and subtle things but this is not for everyone, especially those who gets bored easily.

References

  1. Curran, Daniel, ed. Foreign Films, film review and analysis of The Spirit of the Beehive, pp. 161-2, 1989. Evanston, Illinois: Cinebooks. ISBN 0-933997-22-1.
  2. PopMatters. 1973. Past Perfect: Criterion Classics – The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). [online] Available at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/past-perfect-criterion-classics-the-spirit-of-the-beehive-1973/ [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  3. the Guardian. 1999. Victor Erice: The Spirit of the Beehive. [online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1999/sep/16/derekmalcolmscenturyoffilm [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  4. The Criterion Collection. 1973. The Spirit of the Beehive: Spanish Lessons. [online] Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/447-the-spirit-of-the-beehive-spanish-lessons [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  5. Mubi.com. 2011. THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE – The Spirit of the Beehive on MUBI. [online] Available at: http://mubi.com/reviews/23567 [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  6. Personal.psu.edu. 1973. Cinerga Movie File: Spirit of the Beehive. [online] Available at: http://www.personal.psu.edu/users/s/a/sam50/cinergia/mf/spiritc.htm#Section 2: Film Comprehension and Criticism [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  7. Ebert, R. 2012. Spirit of the Beehive Movie Review (1973) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-spirit-of-the-beehive-1973 [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  8. Rottentomatoes.com. n.d.. The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espritu de la colmena). [online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/spirit_of_the_beehive/ [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].
  9. Boston.com. 2006. A girl’s graceful search for the supernatural – The Boston Globe. [online] Available at: http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2006/05/26/a_girls_graceful_search_for_the_supernatural/ [Accessed: 22 Jun 2013].

About the author:

Dion has a strong interest in arts. His favorite artist is Mark Ryden but current obsession is Mr Brainwash and Han Ya Juan, favorite singer is Kerli, favorite photographer is Mike Rosenthal and Sarah Silver and on the topic of beehives, favorite designer is Alexander McQueen.

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