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Past Perfect: Criterion Classics - The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

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Tuesday, Nov 28, 2006


“The sun shines forever through a child’s eyes…”
—Bananarama


What, exactly, is innocence? Granted, it literally means the freedom from guilt or, on a far more metaphysical level, the freedom from culpable consideration, but what, in the actual realm of the real world, does innocence actually propose? We should really consider its consequences before showering it on individuals who either don’t deserve it or can’t appreciate its potential. Consider children. We look at their fresh-faced, wide-eyed stares, their quick-witted curiosity and unfiltered honesty, and instantly recognize them as innocent. Yet what exactly are we absolving them of? As with all humans, experience begins to mold us from the moment we draw cognizance and every action, every emotion, every triumph, and every defeat chip away at our raw, unformed mantle. By a still-tender age we have personality traits in place, fears and loathing almost locked in, and philosophies and flaws already forming. All that’s required is a single step, a catalytic individual or incident that forever closes the gate on purity, tipping the scales toward perception and maturity.


For young Ana, that event is a screening of Frankenstein in her small Spanish town. Instantly captivated by the monster and its interaction with a young child, this impressionable six-year-old suddenly sees the world in a much darker, more definitive manner. For adults, it’s just a troubling scene in a Hollywood horror movie, but in the mind of a so-called innocent, it’s the fuel to light a thousand inner fires. In many significant ways, that singular moment will transform Ana. She will no longer be just a little girl. Instead, she will become The Spirit of the Beehive—the closed-off environment which is her harried home life.


Suddenly obsessed with death, the concept of spirits, and the ability to control both, she asks her sister how she can contact the creature she’s just seen. As luck would have it, Isabel claims to know where it lives. In an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of a dried-up and desolate field, Isabel claims she’s spoken to the “spirit.” Ana is quickly consumed with the place, visiting it often, constantly on the lookout for her fiend. Then one day, she discovers someone. It’s a moment that will have a profound effect on her life, her family, and her town. It will break the beehive-like isolation everyone experiences, while simultaneously rebuilding the barriers created by the country’s newfound flirtation with fascism.


If one had to sum up Victor Erice’s amazing The Spirit of the Beehive in one single sentiment, it would probably go something like this—the moment in every child’s mind when naiveté turns to knowing. Perhaps a better way of explaining it is as maturity’s first exploratory steps into the juvenile arena. It’s imagination giving way to certainty, possibility undermined by actuality. Combining memories from childhood, the grave ghost of the Spanish Civil War, the ferocious growing fascism of Franco, and the indelibility of Hollywood imagery, Beehive is like a young girl’s diary dissected and displayed for all to see. It plays on themes of fear and alienation, using the ghost town-like village as a symbol of Spain’s internal destruction after years of domestic struggle. It’s also rich in the symbolism of youth giving way to adulthood, from learning how the body works via a classroom effigy, to the discovery of the distinction between reality and filmed fantasy. Told completely through the eyes of, and the available information within, our two young female leads, Erice creates a kind of cinematic tabula rosa. Instead of overdoing the iconography or ham-fisting his insinuations, this director just lets the narrative flow. It sometimes swirls in place like a whirlpool, while in other instances it seeks out and fills in the smallest of creative crevices. The result is both haunting and halting. The visuals stun us as the plot purposefully evades our grasp.


Therefore this is not an instantly “likeable” film. Erice’s use of this very confusing format almost destroys his narrative. Purposefully making sure that no element is officially explained, he lets scenes sputter, focusing away from the action at times, and allows tone to take over where exposition should be. The result is like scanning a watercolor for plot points or listening to the sound of a faraway train for clarifying character description. Beehive is actually more of a painting than a motion picture, a collection of carefully controlled canvases that, when linked together, reveal a submerged storyline full of vexing visual ideas and mixed metaphoric messages. Audiences used to being spoonfed their filmic information will languish behind as Erice continuously forges forward. He is disinterested in clarity and could care less if you understand his undertaking.


For him this is a personal proclamation, an attempt to recapture the country that was taken away from him by war, corruption, and despotism. Staying strictly within the perception of a child and never once allowing adult ideology or inferences to influence the tale, the directorial decisiveness on display here is overwhelming in its arrogance and power. Shots of our little leading ladies miniaturized against a vast, vacant landscape shores up the symbolism of isolation and disconnect, but there is more to such a vista than loneliness. It’s actually a true-to-life look at how people interact with the planet and how humans are frequently humbled by the natural elements around them.


Frankly, Erice could deliver two hours of such astounding pictorials and we would happily drink in each and every one. The Spirit of the Beehive wants to get you drunk of such optical wonders, preparing us for the more troubling elements to be delivered. If explained, the struggles of the individuals in this film would be not so much simplistic as readily recognizable. The father, Fernando, is trying to design a better beehive, so to speak, creating a glass honeycomb with clockwork agitation that’s supposed to stimulate production. Instead, it seems to turn the insects into an angrier, less effective swarm. The link to the authoritarian state is obvious, but Erice is subtle enough to leave the comparison purposefully open-ended. Similarly, Teresa the mother has her secret desires and usual attributes as well. Writing letters of devotion to men off at war, turning the heads of every gentleman she passes, there are hints of adultery, dissatisfaction, and wanderlust in her sad, sullen eyes. We can see that she loves her children (there is a sweet scene between herself and Ana that speaks volumes), but spends relatively little time with them. In fact, she’s a guardian in name only. Neither she nor her husband are ever around when the girls need guidance or affection. Instead, these children are left to fend for themselves and each other. Naturally, such internalization leads to longing, curiosity, and the need for satisfaction.


As for our leads, Ana and Isabel represent the two-pronged approach to discovery that most children typically mix and match. Though she initially seems like the far more levelheaded and learned child, Isabel is actually starting to toughen. Life without her parents has piqued her interest in subjects like life, death, fear, and control. She enjoys terrorizing her little sister, faking a fall or filling her head with pre-bedtime bad thoughts. There is one scene in particular between the child and her pet cat that sums up the situation perfectly. Though we love to call children complete innocents, the truth is that they are nothing but pure learning machines. Psychologists tell us that personality and proclivity are determined through a constant process of learning and rewarding. We experiment with ideas and actions, gauging the feedback and using said data as the mortar for our very makeup. In this case, Isabel pushes the limits of cruelty to see how she responds to such a situation. It’s shocking, but not all that surprising. She’s testing, using trials and their corollaries to guide her future decisions. In the end, Isabel becomes the forgotten child, left to her own occasionally wicked whims and bereft of the importance within the family that Ana will have. Unlike her little sister, she’s by now developed her personal patterns and very little can change her already-forming future.


Ana, on the other hand, is the movie’s main concern. Erice obviously understands how vital she is, since he constantly focuses on actress Ana Torrent’s amazing five-year-old face. Wise beyond its years, wearing epochs of emotion where none should technically exist, Torrent becomes very important as a tool for this filmmaker. Since he is unwavering in making sure that his narrative is realized through the eyes and perception of a child, he needs the perfect juvenile filter. Torrent is that flawless facet. She gives a performance so striking, so lost in complete belief in the subject matter and storyline that it’s almost documentary-like in its realism. Ana’s reaction to Frankenstein is the film’s key conceit—her discovery of death, the link between childhood and loss, and the overwhelming desire to make a similarly-styled connection calls forth all manner of mysterious elements. It raises questions as callous as why would this child need to know mortality this soon in life? What has happened around her to pique such interest? Is she genuinely questioning, or just caught up in a psychological cyclone that’s leading her down a too-dark path? Watching Erice suggestively address each and every issue is one of Beehive‘s many masterful delights. In fact, the overall effect is like the manufacturing of a masterpiece directly into the mind’s eye.


Erice received a great deal of praise for this film and it is easy to see why. Many moviemakers don’t purposely play with perspective, eliminate necessary dialogue, or keep the content clearly limited to that available to a single set of characters. Such restrictions would otherwise hobble a skillful cinematic exploration. But Erice is clearly an artist, able to draw out meaning from the most mundane of images. Something as stereotypical as children playing with fire takes on portents of ominous evil in this director’s approach to such a sequence. Similarly, Isabel’s supposed fall is extended and explored in such a manner as to constantly build both suspense and suspicion. From village streets that look decades removed from life or living to a constant honey-colored cloud that hovers over everything that happens, the use of specific visual cues and obvious signs (the honeycomb-stained glass that covers every window in the girl’s home) draw us purposefully into the world of The Spirit of the Beehive. Thanks to the performances and plot particulars, we are more than happy to settle in and stay. Some may view Erice’s efforts as slightly indulgent, as purposefully perplexing as his fellow Spanish cinematic icon Luis Buñuel. Yet unlike said satiric surrealist, Erice is concerned with the nuances and necessities of narrative. He is out to tell a story, not just pretty up the screen with strange, evocative images.


That’s why one needs a little preparation before taking on The Spirit of the Beehive. If you realize that what you are about to witness is a clever, considered look at how children see the world, process its problems, and respond to its challenges, you’ll quickly sync up with the story and become entranced. This is not a movie you can fight. You can’t pigeonhole it into some manner of recognizable Hollywood archetype. It unravels at a luxuriant, leisurely pace, slowly divulging its secrets and its statements. Though made in the early ‘70s, there is also something startlingly contemporary in the filmmaking. It’s experimental but emotion-driven, David Lynch-like in its approach to visual juxtaposition but more like a fairytale than a harrowing history lesson (the movie actually starts with the words, “Once upon a time…”). Like another classic Spanish artist—the amazing master Pablo Picasso—Victor Erice has delivered a stunning study of youth caged and corrupted in a manner unlike any other individual working within his medium. The Spirit of the Beehive is a remarkable look at the most important time in the life of a child. We all have those moments where existence starts to click over the tumblers toward adulthood. While we can’t hold them off forever, we can remember what it was like prior to their detection. The Spirit of the Beehive provides such a signature souvenir. It is a work of staggering genius.

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