(Spirit of the Beehive)
Director: Victor Erice
Production: Eastmancolor, 35mm; running time: 98 minutes; length 8785 feet. Released 1973. Filmed in Spain.
Producer: Elias Querejeta; screenplay: Francisco J. Querejeta, from an idea by Victor Erice and Angel Fernandéz Santos; assistant director: José Ruis Marcos; photography: Luis Cuadrado; editor: Pablo G. del Amo; sound: Luis Rodriguez; sound effects: Luis Castro and Sire Castro; art director: Adolfo Cofiño; music: Luis de Pablo.
Fernando Fernan Gomez (
); Terésa Gimpera (
); Ana Torrent (
); Isabel Telleria (
); Lady Soldevilla (
); Miguel Picazo (
); José Villasante (
); Juan Margallo (
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* * *
Most critical attention paid to El espiritu de la colmena has focused on its elliptical relationship with precise moments in Spanish history, both the immediately post-Civil War (1940) of its setting and the tail-end of Franco's regime (1973) in which it was made. Whether its tactful reticence in political matters was due to artistic intent or a desire to skirt censorship, this is actually a film whose significance is as universal as it is specific. The static images and haunted faces suggest situations that have endured for centuries and which will persist no matter who rules the country. The wounded refugee from the war who turns up late in the film as a reminder of the unseen conflict stands less for adult concerns than he does an answer to the yearning fantasies of Ana, the pre-teenage heroine. To Ana, the soldier is just as real and just as magical as the Frankenstein Monster, another lost soul whom she encounters in the vicinity of her parents' desolate Castillian home.
In 1940, Ana and her slightly older sister, Isabel, attend a travelling film show and are hugely impressed by James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein , a work which even penetrates their bee-keeping father's veil of obsession as he is distracted from his books by snatches of Colin Clive's ranting visionary dialogue dubbed into Spanish. Discussing the film, Isabel tells Ana that the monster is a spirit who can never die, whereupon many tiny details come to convince the girl that the spirit is close: a primitive anatomy lesson in which pupils slot wooden organs into the torso of an artificial man is a reminder of the creation of the monster, a large bootprint in which Ana's tiny foot is dwarfed suggest Karloff's asphalt-spreader's boots, and the fleeing soldier—whom she unwittingly betrays to a quiet mob as dangerous as the torch-bearing peasantry of Universal's horror films—is another kindred spirit to the gentle, pained big baby of film and folklore.
The snippet from Frankenstein which we see is the still-powerful lakeside vignette between the monster and the little girl, which ends with his accidental drowning of her. This is the scene which is recreated in the eerily delicate finale as Ana's reflection in a pool ripples and is replaced by that of the monster, who gently joins her for a communion that ends not in death but an awakening. Choosing to inhabit entirely Ana's world, and never explaining any of the mundane or marvelous elements, Victor Erice only hints at what has passed between Ana and the monster and how it will affect her relationship with family and community, but young Ana Torrent's quite remarkable performance shows quite clearly how at odds this child is with her world. At the time of the film's release, Erice—who has not subsequently been a prolific director—said that he would like to return to Ana's story in 30 years, to see what manner of adult she became, suggesting that he too was mystified by the qualities Torrent brought to the role.
The rest of the cast seem locked into a slightly over-Bergmanesque rut—the father toiling amid his hives, the mother writing to an adopted child in France, the sister playing malevolent games with the cat and faking her own death. Ana, whose personality is as unformed as that of Karloff's creature, is far freer than these sad souls, and is the only person in the film who actually seems to be in motion. While they focus on their obsessions Ana is forever examining and being intrigued by things, allowing Erice to isolate the traces of life in his mostly poised still images. Ana resists being interpreted as a stand-in for all Spain, simply because her huge-eyed stare, which ranges across cinema from Karloff's heavy-lidded monster to Kubrick's star child, betokens too much unsettling individuality.