El Espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, Spain, 1973)

Seeing the world through a child

Seeing the world through a child

“Now without bitterness nor contempt

now without fear of changes;

only thirst…a thirst

of a little something that kills me.

Rivers of life, where do you run?

Air! it’s air I need.

What do you see in the dark depths?

What is it that makes you tremble and fall silent?

I can’t see! I look on like

a blindman face to face with the sun.

I’m going to fall in the place where

they who fall can never get up.”

This poem is recited by a primary school child directly to the camera (text quoted from http://www.xtheunknown.com/Reviews/SpiritBeehiveN) and is a plea for enlightenment, a state impossible in a fascist society. Set during the Civil War (1936-9) The Spirit of the Beehive is a poetic meditation on childhood innocence and the reality of fascist hatred. Its poetic, tangential, take on repression was necessary because it was made whilst the victor of the Civil War, Franco, was still in power. This was just over 30 years ago. 25% of Austrians voted for neo-fascists in their recent election and even the British National Party is attractive to some! The problem is still with us.

The attraction of fascism is in some people’s need for a strong leader and others need to dominate. Neither psychological state is healthy but may be intrinsic to human personality so it is something we should be ready to fight.

What is the ‘spirit of the beehive’? The central character, in the benchmark performance by a child in cinema, is 6 year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) who cannot tell the difference between reality and film (the movie starts with a screening of Frankenstein in the village). Her sister tells her that the monster lives just outside the village so Ana seeks it only to find a wounded Republican (who opposed the fascist Nationalists). Her father devotes his life to studying bees – trying to understand their spirit – and her mother longs after a lost lover – presumably a victim of the War. Their house is itself shot as if it were a hive – honeycombed leading is on the windows – suggesting that the father is trying to understand the human spirit; how could it have succumbed to the fascists?

The film is not only poetic in its use of metaphor, the imagery is often breathtaking to observe. The director, Victor Erice, is not afraid of using the long take to allow audiences to think about what they are seeing. The Spirit of the Beehive is undoubtedly one of the greatest of films.

2 comments

  1. venicelion

    The setting is actually just after the war in 1940, so the war has been lost and soldier is now officially a guerilla fighter – one of the maquis who feature in Pan’s Labyrinth.

    I’ve always assumed that the bee-keeper is a professor driven from his teaching post by the Francoists and exiled in the village — where I think he finds the local population a little baffling. But of course we don’t know this, everything is mysterious. Who is Ana’s mother writing to? A brother, a lover, a young son somewhere in France? Whoever it is, there is a kind of dislocation in this cultured household marooned among the conservative peasantry of La Mancha. I’ve always taken the ‘spirit’ of the title to be what Ana sees. In one sense, this is Frankenstein’s monster. Again, some might see the monster as representing the creation of Fascism, but it seems to me that the monster is a revolutionary spirit (created by man, not by God, whose earthly agents, the clergy in cahoots with Franco were certainly reactionary). In this way Ana can see the ‘spirit’ of anti-fascism and make sure it survives. In Carlos Saura’s Raise Ravens, Ana Torrent is two years older and seeing ghosts in 1975 at the time of Franco’s death.

    What makes Spirit of the Beehive so wonderful (apart from the magnificent direction and Ana’s performance) is that you can read it any number of ways – but you are required to think about what it might mean.

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