The Spirit of the Beehive is staggeringly beautiful, a haunting rumination on the innocence of childhood, the wreckage left in the wake of war, and the spiritual power of imagination. It is elliptical and elusive, a necessity of the time period it was produced — the tail end of Franco’s regime in Spain. Artists were censored, or worse, but Erice made a political film anyway — it’s just buried deep, in The Spirit of the Beehive‘s bones.
In his essay on the film, which is included as part of Criterion’s DVD release, Paul Julian Smith argues that “the historical trauma suffered by Spain in the twentieth century” is signaled in “coded references” in the film: the “unpaved streets and ruinous buildings” of the small village where Ana and her sister live; the “insistent melancholia” of the household; Ana flipping through a family photo album to see her father pictured with a famed anti-Franco intellectual. In this way the small vanities of everyday life come to be not only oppressive, but also subversive; the same “melancholia” which traps the characters offers Erice the opportunity to engage in subtle resistance against censorship.
Film offers Ana a similarly expansive canvas on which to paint her emotions. At the beginning of the film, she and her sister watch the original Frankenstein in a small theater, with Ana whispering in a mix of horror and fascination: “Why did he kill her?” Frankenstein’s monster killed a young girl: why? Ana’s older sister Isabel promises to tell her later, and that night Ana takes her up on the offer. Isabel convinces her that the monster is a phantom that can be called, and to whom she has spoken. Ana seems for the first time to be dealing with questions of death.
In this movie which uses the subtle magic of filmmaking as political resistance, that same magic serves as the catalyst for a young girl’s moral and imaginative awakening. Ana’s imagination is the primary lens through which we view the events of the film, and it is that imagination which infuses The Spirit of the Beehive with its essential, ironic melancholy: we are discovering, along with Ana, what is real and what is fiction, and how the two are blurred in the games we play with each other.
Isabel, for example, plays on Ana’s gullibility throughout, including in an extended sequence in which the older sister feigns having fallen and knocked unconscious. Ana spends agonizing minutes trying to determine if her sister is play-acting or if she is really hurt. Much like the audience, she initially assumes it to be a trick. But the trick drags on and on. Ana even leaves the room and returns a moment later — a trick of her own, but her sister’s prone body still lies there. Eventually the trick is revealed, and Isabel cannot understand why Ana is so angry — but then, Isabel is older, and there is a world of difference between how the two of them perceive the world. Ana wants to believe in magic, and this willingness to believe makes her gullible; Isabel is older, and more prone to lying and trickery. Though they are only a few years apart in age, already a great gulf separates their experiences.
Later in the film, Ana becomes convinced that a fugitive soldier hiding in a remote sheepfold is the spirit she called — she treats him with friendship, gives him her father’s watch. But this fiction, too, ends: the man is killed by Francoist soldiers, who in turn interrogate her father about the watch. Everywhere she turns the fictions that comfort her, that gave her a way to express her inner emotions, are shattered. Confronting this reality, she runs.
And meets the monster.
It seems fitting that a story dealing with the trauma of a repressive regime through the eyes of a child should climax with a moment that marries the real and the imaginary. How real is the monster? How real the spirit? It’s hard for us to say. Ana seems again both terrified and fascinated by the monster’s sudden appearance. Her reflection in a dark pool becomes his, and when she turns around there he stands. He ambles slowly over to her, kneels down, and clasps her about the shoulders. The movie cuts. When we next see Ana, she is huddled behind a stone structure, where is finally found and taken back home. She spends some time recuperating, the experience evidently having been a difficult one.
These sequences are difficult to interpret, which is why I remain somewhat vague. It seems to me that the ironic power of imagination to both oppress and liberate us is the key to understanding what Ana experiences when she finally meets Frankenstein’s monster. The film ends with Ana standing before a window, whispering gently: “It’s me, Ana.” She is calling the monster back. What happens next, I suppose, is up to us.
Perhaps we are meant to fill in the rest with our imagination.
Paul Julian Smith’s essay, which I quoted above, is excellent, as is the documentary Footprints of a Spirit, which returns to the village where the movie was filmed. The supplements are ultimately a little light, and unfortunately this gorgeous film hasn’t been released on Blu ray yet. Hopefully a high-def transfer comes in time, because this stunner absolutely deserves it. The Spirit of the Beehive is one of my favorite films, and I’m glad I got the chance to revisit it for this series.
Next Time: “Coming of Age” Wrap-up