03 October 2006

The spirit of the beehive
(Spain – 1973)
directed by Víctor Erice
One of the most recent additions to my film collection is Víctor Erice’s Espíritu de la colmena (The spirit of the Beehive), made in 1973 in Spain. Franco’s dictatorship was in its waning years – but the censorship the Generalissimo had fostered still remained in effect – many directors of the day had to fight to have their films shown. If they portrayed anything that had to do with the Spanish Civil War – especially showing the Resistance in a favorable light – they had to do it metaphorically. Some films were cut to ribbons by the censors, some were delayed almost indefinitely – and some never saw the light of day (or the dark of a cinema, if you like).

Erice’s first feature is set in 1940, and shows a Spain still reeling from the pain of the civil war. Set in a small village on the Castilian plain, the film speaks volumes about both the physical and psychological damage done by the conflict. The village is seen to be quite run down – the family at the center of the story lives in relative comfort in a large old manor house, but it, too, is in a state of neglect and disrepair. While quite spacious compared to the homes of their neighbors, the rooms are shown to contain little furniture – and the one meal we see the family sharing, a breakfast, is a sparse one.

The members of the family seem to exist in their own isolated orbits – coming close to each other at times, but never really connecting. The two young sisters – Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería) – share more of a bond than the parents have with each other, or with their children. The girls’ father (portrated by popular Spanish actor Fernando Fernán Gómez) is a beekeeper – the first time we see him in the film, he’s tending the hives, dressed in his protective gear, looking a bit like a space explorer. Their mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to an unnamed man – from the address seen on an envelope in one scene, a refugee from the fighting living in a camp in France. We never learn if he is a former lover, a relative, or just an old friend caught up in forces over which he has little control – but from the frequency of her letters to him, and the emotional depth of the words she writes (which we hear in a voice-over), it’s obvious this is a person about whom she cares a great deal, and whose absence torments her.

The girls are the real focus of the story – especially the youngest, Ana. She appears to be around 6 years old – at that age when the fantasies of childhood are about to be pushed aside by the realities of life, a time of difficult transition for a child. She still accepts everything she sees as being real – fiction is an unknown concept to her. A travelling cinema comes to town, setting up in the town hall – it’s clearly something that has happened before, and we see the children gather around the van, before the dust has even settled, clamoring to know what film will be shown.

On this occasion, it happens to be James Whale’s 1931 classic version of Frankenstein. Ana and Isabel are among the children and adults who crowd into the makeshift theatre to see the film. Ana is captivated by the entire spectacle – and as I mentioned, she’s at the age when everything she sees on the screen is as real to her as what she sees on the street everyday. Ana Torrent, the young actress who portrays Ana in the film, had never seen Frankenstein before – and in one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a film, we see her face in the dark, illuminated only by the light reflecting from the screen, as she reacts, honestly and openly, eyes wide in wonder, not acting, to the story before her. At one point, she leans over to her sister Isabel and asks, ‘Why did the monster kill the little girl? Why did they kill the monster?’

Isabel tells her later, as the girls lie in their beds, awaiting sleep, that ‘it’s all make-believe – nothing in the movies is real’. Ana’s not buying it. Still obsessed with the experience and story of the film, she later listens intently to a story Isabel tells her of a spirit that lives nearby, in an abandoned barn.

Isabel warns Ana that the spirit will only appear when called by someone with a pure heart, who believes it is real. Ana returns to the barn several times, calling ‘It’s me – Ana’, to no avail. After a few visits, she arrives at the barn to find it occupied – a wounded freedom fighter, on the run from Franco’s guard, has taken shelter there. When he awakens with a start, hearing a noise, he immediately draws his pistol – seeing that it’s Ana, he relaxes. Ana is either determined that this man is the spirit she has been seeking, or simply decides to make him into the spirit, and befriends him – she offers him an apple, and later sneaks out of her house with her father’s jacket, to keep the man warm at night, inadvertently neglecting to remove her father’s pocket watch before handing it over to him.

Ana’s vision of this man as her own manifestation of the spirit is shattered when he is caught by Franco’s police and killed. Her father is called to the makeshift morgue – once again, using the town hall, returning to the scene of the film that affected Ana so much – to view the body. The police captain has found the pocket watch on the dead man, and has connected it to Ana’s father – he’s obviously been brought in for questioning, probably a common practice in a society under the shadow of Franco’s paranoia. His assurances that he didn’t know the man, or how his jacket and watch came to be in his possession, are evidently taken as truth, and he is allowed to take his property and go home. When he confronts Ana with the watch, simply by opening it at the breakfast table and allowing the chiming mechanism to sound, it’s pretty apparent from her facial expression that she knows something about it. He later follows her to the barn – she doesn’t know that the man has been captured and killed – and when her father attempts to talk with her there, she runs from him. Her failure to return home prompts a search party made up of villagers scouring the woods and countryside at night, carrying lanterns – a striking visual reminder of the scene in Whale’s Frankenstein when the villagers searched for the monster carrying torches.

Ana is found sleeping in the ruins of an old castle, and brought home, obviously traumatized. As we see her sleeping in the room she shares with Isabel, we notice that Isabel’s bed has been stripped of its linen – perhaps a sign that Isabel, being a couple of years older, is now in her own room, having ‘grown up’ sufficiently in the eyes of her parents to warrant this ‘promotion’. Ana’s experiences have left her changed – but how much is unclear. The border she has crossed – or is beginning to take the first steps in crossing, at least – is one that is not skipped over in the course of a day or two. It’s something that takes years to accomplish. As the film ends, we see her poignantly calling out to her spirit once more, ‘It’s me – Ana’.

The cinematography in this film is astonishingly beautiful – Luís Cuadrado worked miracles, not just in his camera angles and framing, but in capturing the honey-colored light that is so essential in conveying the feeling and atmosphere of this film. In the documentary The footprints of a spirit – one of the several fine extras included in Criterion’s new DVD release of the film – director Víctor Erice and his co-screenwriter Angel Fernández Santos, speak of their original intended storyline, and how they wound up discarding the opening scenes – they said that once they started filming, they realized that the opening, looking back from the present to the time depicted in the body of the film, was a drag on the overall effect. It’s an interesting look into the creative process.

As it turned out, the film is as close to perfect as cinema can get. Criterion has done a masterful job in restoring and packaging it for re-release. Since I’ve never had the opportunity to see this work in a theatre on the big screen, I have nothing with which to compare it – but I can say that this is one of the most beautifully filmed, moving cinematic creations I’ve ever experienced.

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