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The Spirit of the Beehive
IMDB Rating: 8.0/10 from 16 votes
Release: 5 October 1978 (Netherlands) /

The Spirit of the Beehive

Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Director: Víctor Erice,
Stars: , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: In Castilla around 1940, a traveling movie theatre brings James Whale's black and white film classic "Frankenstein" (1931) to a small village. Two young girls, Isabel and Ana, are subsequently determined to find the monster themselves. Written by Michael Crew <m.crew@bbcnc.org.uk>

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Critic Reviews


I was about sixteen years old when I first saw The Spirit Of The Beehive, the first so-called "art house" movie I was ever fully confronted with. I say "confronted" because I had simply never seen anything like it before, and in a way I felt almost offended by its ambiguity and symbolism. How dare a movie suggest I tie all the loose ends together? I want everything on a plate, right there, explained! Then I watched it again. And again. And eventually it dawned on me: Film-making does not necessarily have to be about what we are *meant* to inscribe into something - it's what we, personally, subjectively, read into it, based on our experience and perspective of the world. Victor Erice's Espiritu De La Colmena introduced me to a whole new approach to film and cinema, and one which paved the way to my admiration for directors like Tarkovsky, Marker, and generally any unconventional film-maker under the sun. For that alone it holds a special resonance to me.

While there is definitely a point to be made that this film is, first and foremost, a haunting look at the innocence of childhood, the subversive political meaning was something which is primarily the result of an attempt on my behalf to tie all the loose ends together, and the conclusion below is something I arrived at based on my own personal understanding of the narrative.

On the surface, The Spirit Of The Beehive is about a family which attempts to cope with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. It bears mentioning that the fact that this film even dares to address the conflict in such a direct manner suggests that, two years before Franco's death, the tight censorship regime in Spain was slowly but surely loosening its grip of the domestic film industry. Up to that point many films made in Spain during the Franco era were only able to address the civil war or Franco's regime in a strongly metaphorical manner or via subversive narratives (a case in point being much of Bunuel's work, albeit done in exile, or Saura's La Caza). In fact, much of Spanish cinema during that point in history can be regarded as an excellent case study in how allegories can be used as a way of averting tight censorship.

That said, political commentary on a tangible level would not have passed the censors even at such a late stage in Franco's reign, and thus most of the criticism in ...Colmena is driven by a sense of mutual understanding between spectator and narrative. The start of the film is a case in point: a shot of a few children watching James Whale's Frankenstein (with the narrator proclaiming that "You are about to see a monster") is followed by a cut to the girl protagonist's (Ana's) father. For now assuming that this narrative is driven exclusively by metaphors, does Victor Erice suggest, with that cut, that the girl's father is the "monster" in question? Or, does he, on a more profound level equate the word father to monster? Franco called himself the "father of the nation", and with that knowledge in mind an audience could easily read that scene as a highly ambiguous, yet still extremely effective, criticism of Franco (ie. suggestively calling Franco a monster). However, due to its strongly ambiguous nature, not a single censor would be able to pinpoint that scene and say, without any discernible doubt, that this is indeed the case. It's a wonderful example of allegorical film-making, and how film techniques can be generally used to make an intrinsic statement which relies as much to the techniques applied as it does on the audience's intelligence and ability to understand the more profound meaning behind the images.

I remember once reading the viewpoint that Ana herself represents the Spanish nation, and I can see what the intention of that statement is when you consider the monster=Franco equation I outlined above. The monster Ana meets in her daydreams (as she imagines meeting the Boris Karloff figure she saw at the Frankenstein screen) is a figure which lulls her into a false sense of security and turns out to be a threatening presence; and the symbolism itself becomes very plain once the monster=Franco and Ana=Spain (though I'll admit that this is not the most original reading of the film, and aditionally one which doesn't even begin to scrape at the amount of symbolism apparent).

If only Erice was as prolific as he is imaginative, since El Espiritu De La Colmena makes up for only one third of his entire output in over thirty years (his other two films being the equally brilliant El Sur and Quince Tree Of The Sun). Needless to say, it's cinematic genius, and a flawless work of art bar none.

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