The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tyee Bridge, in his essay on stories The Things Ink May Do, comments on the power of “Once upon a time,” observing that “magic in literature lets us set aside the left brain and listen with a different, less acidic part of our intelligence.” Considered one of the best Spanish films of the 1970s, The Spirit of the Beehive doesn’t begin with that phrase, though the opening credits are displayed next to a series of childlike drawings, which certainly sets a tone. Six year old Ana (played by Ana Torrent) lives in a small village in rural Spain around 1940, when there’s a special screening of Frankenstein in town. Reviews vary so widely some say she’s “traumatized” by Frankenstein, and others that it unlocks her imagination. I think the film is structured somewhat loosely, like a poem that leaves some room for interpretation. Ana is certainly changed, but the film takes the time to show a return to daily life and a long, slow summer before she does anything like set off into the countryside in search of the monster, which rules out trauma for me.

I see the film as one about potential, with one unique experience dropped into a limited world and changing things, and it’s remarkable at capturing that childlike frame of reference where even the broken shell of a house has strange imaginative potential. Ana’s father enjoys a glass beehive for the “mysterious, maddened commotion,” inside, the “teeming bridges and stairways of wax.” If anything represents the constantly engaging adult world that leaves little time for imagination, it’s this beehive. And we all know her attempts to avoid an uncreative life are important and possibly doomed. Ana recalls that the Frankenstein monster responded to kindness from the girl by the lake, but also asks why he killed her. The answer is he didn’t mean it, he threw her in the water playfully but didn’t know his own strength, in a moment that was cut from early releases of the film. It was clear later in Frankenstein that the girl was dead, and ironically the cut scene left room for any number of horrific interpretations. It remains to be seen if Ana will grow up making the imaginative leap of putting herself in someone else’s place — the same imaginative leap that allows for compassion — but it would seem there’s a strong possibility.

Made in the declining years of the Franco regime, the subtleness and symbolism was at least partly a requirement, rather than a choice. There’s much more to be found in the film, though I’ll leave out any more plot details in favour of simply saying it’s a film I could easily see again to test my own interpretation and possibly make some new ones. It could just as easily be argued the beehive represents family, and Ana wanders dangerously from it (though of course, that’s a trifle suffocating and I don’t like it as much).  What’s certain here is that it’s a slow moving and almost meditative film, but a timeless one for its beauty, thoughtfulness and symbolism. The music, acting and cinematography are flawless, and even a brief scene where Ana and her sister run home from the film shrieking “Frankenstein!” rings true, and feels convincing, so that anything Ana imagines is embedded in the stark contrast of realism. This film is a classic for some very good reasons.

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