N.B. On The Spirit of the Beehive24/06/2010
Notes on the 1973 Spanish classic by Frederick Schroeder, Stacey Swann, & Emily Mitchell
I first saw Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive in college, sitting in the front row of a small campus theater. The most striking feature to me, initially, was the careful and perfect use of light throughout the picture. It’s something that has kept me returning to watch the film over and over again. It was only later that I learned the cameraman, Luis Cuadrado, was going blind while making the movie. An assistant would take Polaroids of the scenes and Cuadrado would direct the lighting by looking through a magnifying glass at these pictures. Later Cuadrado committed suicide after the tumor in his brain became too painful to face. Erice would go on to make only two more films, one every ten years. The Spirit of the Beehive has become a film full of the mystery of death for me – both in front of the camera and behind it. With each new viewing I find myself consumed by the thought of the pictures the blind cameraman used to light what he couldn’t see. What happened to these photographs? What story would they tell?
-Frederick Schroeder, Cinematographer
It’s not just that I don’t like many of the films that most intelligent people love, like the works of Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen. (See, I’ve lost you already, haven’t I? You’re already disgusted with me. Perhaps you’ll keep reading if I allow that I do admire Badlands?) I also often like movies that have been panned by critics and disappeared off of movie screens before you notice they are there (Zero Effect, The Darwin Awards, the seriously flawed but still interesting Pandorum).
While I cannot fully figure out why my taste seems so aberrant, I can locate one component: I’m a slave to dialogue. I love a beautifully composed shot as much as anyone, but if those shots are standing in for people actually communicating with one another, I get antsy and even angry. So I was worried as I started watching The Spirit of the Beehive; there’s not a whole lot of talking in this film. I admit there were a couple of scenes where I wanted to yell at the parents, Just open your mouth and speak! But on the whole, I loved this film despite its silence. Much of this is due to the performance of Ana Torrent as young Ana. The expressions on her face are so effective and complicated they make me forget she isn’t speaking.
The movie also captures moments of childhood that I had long forgotten. At school, the sisters Ana and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), along with the other girls, learn anatomy from a large cartoonish figure called Don Jose. (Tiny Ana must crawl up on a chair to replace his missing eyes.) Jose reminded me a great deal of the blow-up Alphabet People in my kindergarten classroom. Even smaller things, such as the sound of a pencil being rolled up and down on a school desk, or the way, in the middle of the night, strange noises always occur as if in answer to the frightening thing being discussed among siblings, made me suddenly feel like a child again.
And what the movie does most beautifully is remind us of how any sentence, any throwaway comment from a parent or sibling, can hugely alter the way we see the world at that age. Again this is where Torrent’s acting is so impressive. We watch her face and can see her absorbing the information and realigning her worldview to adapt to it.
-Stacey Swann, Writer/Editor
What is the difference between how a child takes a step and how an adult performs the same movement? At one point in The Spirit of the Beehive, there is a scene in which children from a small town enter the schoolhouse in the morning, one after another. There are no adults in the scene, and as a result the viewer has the fleeting illusion that the figures she is watching are fully grown. But this impression only lasts for a moment. Very quickly, you notice that these are children by the way they move.
Through the film we see the child protagonist, Ana, and her sister, Isabel, running or walking through their town and the dry winter fields that surround it. We see that each step is an absorbing effort for a small body negotiating a world not made on its scale. When Ana walks over the plowed furrows of the fields to the abandoned house where the girls imagine Frankenstein’s monster lives, she must march, lifting each foot high, her body tipped forward and arms swinging. There is nothing casual or accidental in her movements because her lack of height and strength don’t allow her to forget her body even for a minute. She appears to be fully present in her surroundings at all times because her actions require such an effort. Even when she’s imagining the monster, she actually looks for his hiding place, actively searching, peering around corners and into shadows.
For children, the film seems to say, the physical and fantastical worlds are one and the same. Ana believes in a really-existing monster that lives down a well. When a wounded partisan hides in the abandoned house, Ana thinks she’s found the monster at last. She has no reason to doubt that he would show up in this way.
This is a film about dismemberment and reassembly. Frankenstein’s monster – a film the girls watch near the beginning of the film – acts as a founding myth, the man constructed from parts of other men. The Spirit of the Beehive shows us the way in which adults, unlike children, are creatures that live comfortably with their own dissections and disjunctions, that can tolerate for better or worse, a world in unmatched pieces. Ana’s father begins the film disguised as a monster in his bee-keeping suit. He is an entomologist who retreats from his family into his experiments, some of which provoke artificially frantic and fruitless activity among his bees, turning the hive into its own type of Frankenstein’s monster. The girls’ mother, meanwhile, writes letters to a love she knew before the war, mailing them in secret. Adults are people who take things apart and put them back together, including themselves. At school, the girls learn anatomy from a dummy named Don Jose, placing on Don Jose “his” heart, lungs, and eyes.
The film is the story of Ana coming into an awareness of fragmentation; the separation of experience into physical and psychological, real and imaginary. At the end, we see her begin to talk to the monster in her mind, developing the capacity for abstraction that allows adults to hold two separate varieties of reality in our minds at once, a necessary skill for living in a dismembered world.
-Emily Mitchell, Novelist