• The Spirit of the Beehive: Spanish Lessons

    By Paul Julian Smith

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    Released in 1973, in the dying days of General Franco’s forty-year dictatorship, The Spirit of the Beehive soon established itself as the consummate masterpiece of Spanish cinema. Yet, strangely, many of the gifted artists who collaborated on Víctor Erice’s first feature, an atmospheric exploration of a child’s experience in a bleak village just after the civil war, have had troubled afterlives. Erice himself, acclaimed by critics as Spain’s greatest auteur, has completed only two features since (The South, another period drama, in 1982, and Quince Tree of the Sun/Dream of Light, a documentary on a painter, in 1983). The career of Luís Cuadrado, the creator of the luminous cinematography, was tragically cut short by blindness. Ana Torrent, the six-year-old star, remains haunted by the role that made her a Spanish icon. In 2003, on the thirtieth anniver­sary of The Spirit of the Beehive’s release, she posed for the poster for the San Sebastián Film Festival. Re-creating a scene she had shot so many years before, she stood solemn faced on the railway tracks. Erice has said, "When I’ve finished a film, it’s no longer mine—it belongs to the people." Surely few films have had such an enduring effect on both their makers and their audience.

    The Spirit of the Beehive was controversial from the start. Although it won the main prize at San Sebastián on its release, the jury’s enthusiasm was not shared by all the public. Some of the audience, restless at the film’s slow pace, even booed. Yet The Spirit of the Beehive is a classic example of one strand of Spanish filmmaking at that time. Like many repressive regimes, Francoism attempted to use cinema to change its negative image abroad and to create the impression that freedom of expression was permitted. By producing some internationally successful "quality" films, the regime also hoped to raise the status of Spanish cinema generally, which was at that time dominated by crude, mainstream comedies. By the early seventies, these policies had led to the production and export of many experimental and even discreetly oppositional films, although, of course, no overtly leftist movies could be made. The gaping holes in the plot of The Spirit of the Beehive and the mysterious motivations of its characters are typical of this "Francoist aesthetic," a term used to describe artistically ambitious movies of the time that made use of fantasy and allegory. These characteristics, which remain so magical to modern audiences, were used in the period as a form of indirect critique.

    What is unique about The Spirit of the Beehive is its reference to the horror genre. The enigmatic plot begins with two children, Ana and her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería), watching James Whale’s Frankenstein in an improvised cinema in the village of Hoyuelos (like the actors, the location keeps its real name in the film). Obsessed with a spirit who her sister claims lives nearby, Ana will set out one night to meet him, with near tragic consequences. Erice recently recounted that when the child actress confronted his re-creation of Frankenstein’s monster on set, she was as deeply disturbed as her character is in the film.

    Ana Torrent’s dark-eyed infant, mesmerized by the monster, was thought to be especially Spanish in her looks and was compared by critics to a Goya portrait. Her innocence is counter­balanced by the hard-won experience of her father, played by veteran Fernando Fernán Gómez. The latter’s fond familiarity to Spanish audiences (he had already played in more than one hundred films and would appear in one hundred more) helped to humanize the somewhat chilly austerity of the film’s form.

    He is first glimpsed in the beekeeping mask that gives him the air of an astronaut (the bare Castilian landscape is also lent a lunar quality), and this existential isolation seems similar to that of Erice, who has often spoken of the intensely personal nature of his cinema and the purity of his self-expression. Indeed, Erice and coscreenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos (later a distinguished film critic) based the script on their own memories, re-creating school anatomy lessons, the discovery of poisonous mushrooms, and the ghoulish games of childhood. It is no accident that the film is set in 1940, the year of Erice’s own birth.

    Early versions of the script are both more explicit and more political than the final film. Originally, the story had a frame narrative in which the adult Ana explained in voice-over the mysteries that she could not fathom as a child (The South would retain such a voice-over). Likewise, the opening sequence, which is now limited to the arrival of the traveling cinema in the village, was at first intended to include shots of abandoned cannons and battered army boots, a clear reference to the tragedy of the civil war. The question of how political The Spirit of the Beehive is has been hotly debated since the film’s premiere, when leftist critics attacked its lack of overt commentary. Yet to equate Franco and Frankenstein as twin masters of horror is too crude. By focusing not on national conflict but on domestic distress, what one reviewer called "the war behind the window," Erice gives a much more subtle and moving take on the historical trauma suffered by Spain in the twentieth century.

    That trauma is signaled in coded references. The village may be a playground for heedless children, but its unpaved streets and ruinous buildings are scarred by conflict and deprivation. The father, Fernando, listens in secret to a shortwave radio (surely it is to the BBC, forbidden by the regime), while his wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), writes letters to an absent loved one (an envelope is addressed to a Red Cross camp in France, where Spanish refugees were interned). The character known only as "the fugitive," whom Ana visits in an abandoned barn, is presumably a member of the maquis, or anti-Francoist resistance. More generally, the insistent melancholia, approaching catatonia, of the household marks it out as one inhabited by members of the losing side in the war. As the innocent Ana leafs through the family photo album, we glimpse her father in a snapshot with Miguel de Unamuno, the famous intellectual who was a brave critic of Franco’s rebellion.

    Erice conveys all this with great economy and reticence. The script is laconic (many of the best sequences are entirely silent), and the shooting style says it all. Each member of the family is introduced separately, in a different location: the spartan cinema, the teeming beehive, the hushed room, reminiscent of Vermeer, where Teresa writes her letter to an unknown man. Not once in the film’s ninety-nine minutes do they share the same frame. Typically, in the one sequence when all four are together, a family breakfast, Erice films each of them on their own. Because Erice rarely gives us an establishing shot to set up the action in such scenes, we feel as lost and disoriented as his child protagonist. Framing, too, is used to suggest existential isolation. In one moving sequence, when Fernando joins his wife in bed, she feigns sleep. Erice trains his camera on her watchful, fearful face, while her husband is reduced to indistinct offscreen noise and murky shadows cast on the bedroom wall.

    The house itself, an authentic location, is perhaps the most important character in the film. The weathered stone facade, its large entrance crowned by a timeworn coat of arms, suggests an ancestral residence gone to seed (there are even battlements on the roof where Ana’s mother calls out to her lost daughter). Dark furniture is matched by gloomy oil paintings, carefully chosen for their themes: in the girls’ bedroom, an angel leads a child by the hand (Ana will become obsessed with death); in Fernando’s study, where he reads and types, Saint Jerome is depicted as a writer, with a skull placed prominently on his desk. Even the honey-colored light that streams through the windows, glazed with hexagonal panes, is more ominous than it first seems. It evokes the beehive of the title, which Fernando tells us is a society of feverish, senseless activity, one that has no tolerance for disease or death. Cuadrado’s cinematography thus cites a tradition of Spanish old masters that sees intimations of mortality not just in shadows but also in the vanity of everyday life. Ambitiously aiming his first feature at the heart of Spanish cultural tradition, Erice even has his opening title (“A village on the Castilian plain”) echo the first words of Spain’s national novel, Don Quixote (“In a place in La Mancha”).

    Less evident, but no less exciting and innovative, is The Spirit of the Beehive’s sound design. Spanish films of the period generally used postdubbing for dialogue. The many child heroes of popular pictures were voiced by adult women shrilly impersonating infants. It is difficult to imagine now the shock felt by audiences on hearing real children’s voices, recorded live on location. Indeed, some complained that the atmospheric scenes where the children talk in whispers were inaudible. Elsewhere, Erice uses sound to cite the horror genre. As the children whisper about spirits (a candle flickers perilously between them), ominous clumping noises are heard offscreen (we later realize that it is just the father pacing the bare boards in an adjoining room). The original soundtrack, by acclaimed classical composer Luis de Pablo, combines uncanny melodies (including a haunting flute motif) with more familiar tunes taken from traditional children’s songs (one is called “Let’s Tell Lies”). In the final sequence, Ana looks straight into the camera as we hear her defiant invocation of the mysterious spirit: “Soy Ana” (better translated as “It’s me, Ana” than as “I am Ana”). Sound and image are perfectly fused.

    Erice, who wrote a book on Nicholas Ray, has spoken of his love for Ray’s “beautiful” film We Can’t Go Home Again. Ironically, Erice’s own work can be seen as a repeated attempt to return home. After The Shanghai Gesture, a long-awaited feature project, fell through in the late 1990s, Erice shot a short in luscious black and white for the portmanteau movie Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002). In his segment, called “Timeline,” a baby is born in a village, once more in 1940, only to die unheeded as the villagers go about their everyday life. In Erice’s own words, “Blood blooms across the baby’s clothes like an endless rose.” The intimate connection between life and death in childhood, the great theme of The Spirit of the Beehive, could not be expressed more lyrically and tragically than here.

    It seems unlikely that Erice, the perfectionist auteur, could have guessed that his filmmaking career would be so troubled for the thirty years that followed his miraculous debut. But while his oeuvre may be slight, it more than makes up in quality for what it lacks in quantity. Erice has said that he makes films “against time, to escape time.” It is an aim he has brilliantly fulfilled in The Spirit of the Beehive, a film that has left an indelible mark on cinema in Spain and beyond.

    Paul Julian Smith is the Professor of Spanish at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of twelve books on Spanish and Latin American cinema and culture, including Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, Contemporary Spanish Culture: TV, Fashion, Art and Film, and Amores Perros: Modern Classic. He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.

13 comments

  • By NEH
    November 27, 2008
    10:03 PM

    Wonderful essay. I may've never caught those subtle political references (like the mother's letter), but I am very pleased to see others have noticed the significance of the oil paintings.
    Reply
  • By Tchoutoye
    April 08, 2010
    09:51 PM

    Interesting essay about an underrated and highly misunderstood masterpiece. Though set in the Spanish civil war, it is not a political film about Franco, Fascism and the war. The very few references to the war symbolize something else entirely. It's a purely spiritual film, the themes of which are timeless and universal. Ana Torrent's charismatic performance is wonderful. The iconic status of her role is comparable to that of Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. "Not once in the film’s ninety-nine minutes do they share the same frame." Not entirely true. Towards the end of the film the father and the mother share the same frame when he has fallen asleep in his study and she turns off the light.
    Reply
    • By Barry Moore
      August 21, 2014
      11:56 AM

      The story is actually set in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, at least in the region of Spain where the action occurs. The psychic trauma that the characters are still grappling with is an underlying theme of the film, symbolized most poignantly with the child's identification with the monster.
  • By oblomov
    June 01, 2010
    12:03 AM

    Interesting essay, but the author might want to take another(?) look at "Timeline" to see what really happens.
    Reply
  • By Joseph S.
    February 20, 2011
    11:13 PM

    "Not once in the film's ninety-nine minutes do they share the same frame." Entirely true. All four family members never once share the same frame, as Mr. Smith states in his perceptive essay. One question I have concerns the deep ambiguity of Isabel's presence later in the film. After Ana finds her on the floor, "playing dead," there's the scene with the children jumping over the rubbish fire, and the freeze-frame on Isabel. Then, following Ana's rescue by the search party, the shot of the children's room--Isabel's mattress is gone, and the bed looks vacant, so when Isabel enters . . . is she really there? Has she died? The doctor continues to stress that Ana has gone through some kind of profound experience--is it the death of the man she's been helping, or her sister? I don't think anyone seeing this film can have a definitive answer to this question.
    Reply
  • By Evan S.
    September 17, 2011
    11:00 AM

    Joseph S. good point. I also thought about Isabel's bed being gone. We see her sleeping in another room later on though. Maybe the mother and father moved her into another bedroom while Ana was recovering?, so that Ana could be more alone? I like the idea that she possibly did die there though. Also another thing I thought might be a possibility is that the soldier that jumps off the train and that Ana helps in the house, could that be the lost lover that the mother is writing letters to? The mother writes in the letter at the beginning of the movie that the place he used to stay in is hardly anything more than walls now (which the isolated shack is). I think the mother might have lived with the solider in that shack at one point. Or he lived there and she went there to have an affair with him, until he left for the war and the house became abandoned and in disrepair because of the revolution. That would also explain how Isabel knows about the house, maybe she saw her mom go there one time secretly, and it has become a mysterious place,where spirits could be for her. I think this explains why the soldier comes back specifically to the house, obviously deserting the war he is supposed to be in, so that he can try and come back to the mother character. This adds a whole other dimension to Ana helping him out if thats true. Its a great film nonetheless, one of the best I've seen in a while. So much is said with silence. Would be a great double feature with "Forbidden Games".
    Reply
    • By Giorgio C.
      June 23, 2013
      07:26 AM

      I admit I didn't think about it, but as soon as I read your comment I was convinced. Indeed, this adds a new dimension to the story. Assuming this is true, I ended up wondering if the fugitive Republican isn't in fact Ana's father. Both Fernando and Teresa are fair-haired, and Isabel (the older daughter) is reasonably similar to her parents. On the contrary, Ana with her dark hairs and eyes, is very much unlike her sister and both of her parents. But quite similar to the fugitive.
  • By Harry C.
    April 12, 2013
    03:06 PM

    We can write all day about what this means or what that might means. It's all opinion that may or may not be able to be proven. The only thing we know for sure is that - unless you have intimate knowledge of this place and era - the movie is incredibly boring.
    Reply
  • By Ben C.
    April 17, 2013
    03:07 PM

    I love this movie. When I watched this, I was transfixed, despite having almost no knowledge of the movies place or circumstance. I find it hard to take Harry C.'s comment seriously. "It's all opinion. Except for my opinion [which no one else here agrees with]. My opinion is a fact." I'm sorry you didn't like the movie, but your comment is just silly.
    Reply
    • By Gord
      April 18, 2013
      12:36 PM

      I'm with you Ben, 100%. Like all good movies Spirit of the Beehive is concerned first with being a human being - the fears, struggles, loves, little moments & big - the Spanish Civil War or Franco, whatever, is an accidental element of history and, sorry Harry, knowledge is helpful but hardly required much less "intimate knowledge".
  • By Manny
    June 24, 2014
    03:55 PM

    So many subleties in this movie. I watched it last night. If you go to disc #2, will get a slight glimpse of what Erice was trying to achieve in this movie. Like he said " this film becomes the property of the viewer. It is not a movie which you can sit down and relax with over some popcorn. There are many interpretations and themes that can come out of it. I enjoyed it very much especially the performance of Ana Torrent. At the ending where she turns around and looks at the camera, she is almost inviting us to enter into her phantasm. Frankenstein may symbolize all and the ultimate fears of her childhood and yes it can symbolize Franco reign of terror.
    Reply
  • By Joseph K.
    September 03, 2014
    07:56 AM

    Just caught this on TCM. Embarrassingly, I had no knowledge of it beforehand. I found it similar, though far superior, to a film I recently caught on the big screen, Under The Skin. The images wash over you, the glances linger and movie sticks with you. It's achingly haunting, emotive and beautiful.
    Reply
    • By Barry Moore
      September 03, 2014
      09:56 AM

      I caught 'Under the Skin' on cable television recently, and was not reminded of 'Spirit of the Beehive' while watching it (admittedly, it has been decades since I've seen 'Spirit of the Beehive'). Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth', however, strongly recalled 'Spirit of the Beehive', and there is little doubt in my mind that del Toro's film is greatly indebted to Erice's earlier effort.