The Spirit of the Beehive

(El espíritu de la colmena, Victor Erice, Spain, 1973)


In The Spirit of the Beehive, Víctor Erice creeps up on his leading character, Ana (Ana Torrent), over the course of an exquisite prologue lasting around 18 minutes. He starts with the general, the mass: a crowd of kids and adults gathering in a town hall that has been unfussily converted into a cinema (it is Castilian Spain circa 1940) for a screening of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff.


Gradually, we are guided to pay attention to two particular children (Ana and her sister, Isabel [Isabel Tellería]); and then, subtly, to focus on Ana. Of the various spectator responses in that cinema – intrigued, distracted, disapproving, amused, bored – hers is the most rapt.  Only well-chosen fragments of Frankenstein are given to us, such as a solemn warning at the start (“It might shock you”), or a snatch of dialogue that carries all over town (“What if we never went beyond what’s known?”).


Erice’s boldest stroke in the arrangement of this cinema-going scene is the way he deliberately omits the specific moment in Frankenstein which most disturbs Ana – the creature’s inadvertent, “innocent” murder of a young girl as he plays with her by the water (“Isabel, why did he kill her?”, Ana asks twice). We see only this tragic incident’s aftermath: a man carrying the child’s corpse in his arms through a village street. Yet that death is precisely the traumatic moment around which the core, dreamlike logic of Erice’s film will turn.


More broadly, in its opening movement, the film has taken all this time to establish a few basic, simple facts – that there is a family comprising a father (Fernando Fernán Gómez), a mother (Teresa Gimpera), and the two girls. They must all literally pass through the same gateway for us to know this. Before then, Erice shows us the man with his bees, and in his study; he shows us the woman writing, riding a bicycle and posting a letter into a train; and he reveals the girls at the movie, as described. All of these introductory portraits figure as studies in haunted solitude, the windows of the character’s rooms quickly coming to resemble the cell-structures of the father’s beehive.


This is a mysterious, unforgettable film, touching on many bases (family melodrama, political parable, Val Lewton-style poetic horror) but refusing to congeal into any one genre or intention. As elsewhere in Erice’s sadly unprolific career (only two features, several shorts plus art gallery installation work since this masterpiece), the family unit is simultaneously seen dispassionately as the site of psychic trauma, and celebrated as the one place where intimate community seems possible. It could hardly be otherwise, since Erice’s families absorb the blows of national history, and also valiantly try to resist them, to subsist and survive.


With his mainly static camera and his painstaking attention to light, space, place, and the time of day or night, Erice evokes with breathtaking poetry the ambience of this small town where the distance from any so-called real world feels extreme. The characters dream of an elsewhere until reality comes crashing into an abandoned farm house – a political fugitive whom the impressionable, frightened but fascinated Ana takes to be the wandering espíritu of the Frankenstein monster incarnated.


The film is commonly read as an allegory of Spain under during the Franco years (Franco-stein?). Certainly, it is clear that the characters are (like the stranger who appears) defeated, exiled Republicans. More allusively, the film is suffused with signs of repression, anguish and tension – as one critic has noted, even the indoor light seems heavily “censored”. But the film also eschews, on the level of its political discourse, obvious signs of good versus bad (the local civil guard is friendly), as well as the spectacle of the fugitive’s murder. It is a defining trait of Erice’s cinema that no one – least of all Frankenstein’s creature – is purely and simply monstrous.


At the heart of the film, carried by Torrent’s astonishingly natural performance, is Ana’s struggle to form her own identity. The monster for her is both a source of terror and of wonder, some enigmatic crucible of her own, as yet undefined self. This movie that begins as a fairy tale (“once upon a time…”) ends with a stirring declaration addressed to the spirits of the wind: “I am Ana”.


Note: An audiovisual essay on the cinema of Víctor Erice, Haunted Memory, was made in 2016 by Cristina Álvarez López and me. The best quality version is included as an extra on the British Film Institute Blu-ray/DVD edition of El Sur (1983), but it is also viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTuVd7Ygoiw. Half an issue of the journal Short Film Studies (Vol. 9 No. 2, 2019) is devoted to documentation and analysis of this work.

© Adrian Martin May 2003 / March 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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