Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Spirit of the Beehive (dir. Victor Erice, 1973)

Víctor Erice’s debut feature, The Spirit of the Beehive, is an acknowledged masterpiece of Spanish cinema, and in my estimation, it’s also one of the finest films of the 20th century.  It plumbs the mysteries of childhood more hauntingly and more convincingly than any other film I’ve seen.  Set on the Castilian plain in the remote village of Hoyuelos circa 1940, in the immediate wake of the Spanish Civil War, the movie is distantly possessed by the ghost of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain as a dictator for over thirty-five years, from the period in which the film takes place until his death not long after the film’s release.  The director Erice himself was born in 1940, and many of the film’s details were inspired by his own childhood memories.

According to historians of Spanish cinema, the films produced in the country after the Spanish Civil War suffered greatly under Franco’s oppressive regime.  Political plots or themes often had to be subtly coded or presented allegorically, to avoid being construed as critical of governmental power.  The figure of the Fugitive — who drives the dreamlike last half-hour of the film and transfixes its central character, a young girl named Ana (played by Ana Torrent) — is among the few political elements of the movie.  Wounded while jumping from a train and later executed by military officials in the dark of night, the Fugitive is suggested to be a member of the anti-Franco resistance movement of the time.

But again, The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that’s deeply and intricately concerned with childhood first and foremost.  Appropriately, any political content is muted in a handful of scenes that unfold in near-total silence.  Viewed through a child’s eyes, as the entire film is intended to be, such political issues of the outside adult world make no logical sense; in the movie’s narrative as in life, those issues are soundless, voiceless, a kind of solemn charade.

Which brings us, fortunately, to the film’s major focus:  the daily — and nightly — experiences of Ana and her slightly older sister, Isabel (played by Isabel Tellería).  The world evoked in The Spirit of the Beehive is a thoroughly palpable one, despite the ethereal aura of strangeness that pervades many of the movie’s most memorable scenes.  Erice understands how children view and begin to interpret the world.  In our earlier years, we look around and see the world just for what it is, a succession of objects endowed with their own symbolic power, before we start to piece together, curiously, what exactly those objects mean.  If we come upon an abandoned well, we yell down into it, then throw a stone at the motionless water to see what will happen.  If we find a lone stretch of train tracks, we place an ear on the steel rail to hear if the train is approaching, then stand as close as we can to the tracks as the locomotive rushes past.

There’s more than a hint of danger in these depictions, and Erice lets that discomfort and uncertainty linger as his two young actresses perform the scenes.  This tension is both supplemented and counter-pointed by Luís Cuadrado’s bleak yet grippingly visceral cinematography.  An endless furrowed field, dotted with a few solitary and otherworldly shade trees.  A rundown stone shack with two black rectangular portals for doors.  At the far end of a different field, a standing wall of some other demolished stone building, pierced by occasional gaps and holes.

The film’s long spans of silence are like those occasional gaps and holes.  Its narrative involves a family of four — the two aforementioned daughters, their beekeeper father Fernando (played by Fernando Fernán Gómez), and their quiet, letter-writing mother, Teresa (played by Teresa Gimpera).  Film scholars have noted that Erice never shows the whole family together in a single frame.  Even when all four characters are eating together at the breakfast table, each actor is filmed individually, emphasizing the sense of relaxed separation within the household.

Another important character is the physical home where the family resides, an imposing block of an estate (complete with battlements on the roof), a remnant of some bygone, more prosperous era.  The doorways and passages of its many rooms all seem to line up directly with one another, in contrast to the austere quietude and estrangement in which its four inhabitants often live.  Its golden windows are designed with hexagonal metal seams, a visual and metaphorical echo of the beehives with which the children’s father is seen working early in the movie.

The plot of the film is structured around the image that opens the narrative:  the arrival in Hoyuelos of a truck that’s delivering a movie to the village’s one-room cinema.  That movie, from which several key clips are deftly re-inserted and recreated, is James Whale’s Frankenstein.  Indeed, the genius of Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive is this joyfully self-referential device; from the movie’s inception, he makes us aware that his own film is a meditation on the power of cinema to alter our imaginations.  The scenes of Ana watching Whale’s Frankenstein were filmed while the young actress Ana Torrent was actually seeing Frankenstein for the very first time herself.  Ana’s genuine look of awe and surprise when the girl by the lake hands Frankenstein’s creature a flower propels the wonder of Erice’s film.  The idea of whether the monster is real, whether or not he killed the girl and then died himself, and whether or not he lurks somewhere at the edges of their village, keeps Ana’s mind faithfully in pursuit of him from that point onward.

Later in the film, after her sister Isabel pulls a cruel but typical childhood prank of “playing dead” — a traumatizing moment at which Ana can find no adult in the house to help her — Ana’s connection to reality gradually unhinges.  She wanders away from home and stumbles upon the wounded Fugitive hiding out in the rundown stone shack in the sprawling, rutted field, conflating him with her image of Frankenstein’s creature, someone she can sneak away to care for and, unlike her stern-faced father, grow closer to. Of all of Ana’s encounters with her emerging notion of mortality throughout the film (her sister’s prank, the girl by the lake in Frankenstein, foraging for wild mushrooms with her father and sister to learn which ones are poisonous), the murder of the Fugitive, which she reads as her father’s punishment and betrayal of her at once, is the death that’s most indelible.

The movie powerfully encapsulates the pivotal moment in childhood when we realize that life does not go on indefinitely but ends, sometimes even violently and abruptly.  How Ana copes with that realization is the magic of the film’s spellbinding final scenes.  As a philosophical voiceover early in the film foretells, The Spirit of the Beehive dwells in a place beyond the clouds and stars.