Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

          Comprising equal parts magic and mystery, this atmospheric Spanish film offers a child’s-eye view of a country undergoing dramatic sociopolitical changes. Set in 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive is generally interpreted as a rich canvas of metaphors representing adjustments resulting from the installation of Francisco Franco’s totalitarian regime. The film’s lead character, a little girl named Ana, naturally has no way of understanding the tensions that plague her parents and the larger world around her family, but she internalizes these feelings, then interprets them through the prism of youthful imagination. Adding a layer of idiosyncrasy is Ana’s fascination with the classic American monster movie Frankenstein (1931), which she sees at a screening in her small village.
          Six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) lives with her slightly older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria), and their parents—middle-aged beekeeper Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and his beautiful wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), who is many years Fernando’s junior. Life in Ana’s household is strained on many levels. Fernando connects more deeply with his bees than with his wife, Teresa spends most of her time writing letters to a former lover, and Isabel makes sport of her little sister by telling audacious lies that Ana believes unconditionally. All of this distance and secrecy coalesces when Ana and Isobel see Frankenstein. Ana perceives the movie’s misunderstood monster as a benevolent figure, and Isabel persuades Ana that the monster is a spirit who resides in a farmhouse near Ana’s home. Ana spends time at the farmhouse looking for the monster, eventually befriending a rebel soldier who uses the farmhouse as a hideout. The story culminates with Ana taking a long nocturnal journey through the woods surrounding her village, during which time she might or might not fall under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, depending on how the viewer interprets clues buried in the movie’s ambiguous textures.
          Exquisitely photographed by Luis Cuadrado, whose amber hues resemble the dusky look that Nestor Almendros later created for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), The Spirit of the Beehive is defined as much by the cinematic equivalent of negative space as it is by actual narrative events. Long stretches of the picture are wordless, with the sound effects of rustling leaves and soft winds reverberating through Cuadrado’s painterly frames like the ghosts that permeate the story. Cowriter-director Victor Erise, who has only made four feature films to date (The Spirit of the Beehive was his debut), presents the movie like a combination of a dream and a poem, offering countless enigmas for viewers to do with as they will. Erise constructs a deliberate pace that suits the material but will challenge restless viewers.
          For those who fall under the film’s singular spell, however, unique bewilderments await. Leading actress Torrent embodies innocence tainted by the rigors of the adult world, her impossibly wide eyes constantly expressing something poignant about the human soul. Similarly, the bee imagery implies collectivism, a fraught topic in the context of a story about Francoist Spain. And if some elements of The Spirit of the Beehive are ultimately impenetrable, so, too, are the stages of maturation that Ana goes through during the story.

The Spirit of the Beehive: GROOVY 

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