The Spirit of the Beehive is a beautiful film that will live in my mind, but only as a result of its poetic imagery and atmosphere. While the acting is convincing and the plot is not necessarily flawed, a significant part of the story leaves us with more questions than it is willing or able to answer. Nevertheless, there is no denying its aesthetic value and that it at least does seem to be tackling various political themes. Figuring out what these themes are ends up being more distracting than intriguing.
- Director: Victor Erice
- Writer: Victor Erice, Angel Fernandez Santos, Francisco J. Querejeta
- Cast: Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria
While depicting the lives of a small family during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive focuses mainly on the emotional journey of a young girl, Ana (Ana Torrent), whose innocence is threatened by a growing awareness of life and death. Ana’s father, Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez), works closely with beehives while Ana’s mother, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), seems to often daydream about a long lost love. When a traveling movie projectionist comes to the small town to showcase the 1931 classic film, Frankenstein, Ana and her older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria), are compelled to ask a series of questions that lead Ana to explore her curiosity of an existence that already seems to be losing clear answers.
This is a film that requires some historical and political context to fully appreciate. Perhaps exactly for that very reason, it’s allegorical qualities are exclusive. Without a clear reference to the Franco regime in mind, much of 2nd and 3rd acts feel uneventful. This is a film that functions more as an exercise on mood, or a reflection of life. We start with a setting where two girls appear to be on the verge of fascinating discoveries. Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado achieves a beautiful earth-toned aesthetic, one which clearly resembles the color of a beehive, and therefore would appear to be making some sort of correlation between the member’s of Ana’s household and the members of a beehive. But such analogous attempts are mainly left to vague interpretations, especially without knowledge of the underlying political context that inspired Victor Erice to comment on the Franco region with subtlety.
Despite a less than clear plot or purpose, there are individual moments that lift the film into respectable status. Erice’s screenplay features a simplicity that lends a poetic quality to a film that intends to function on an allegorical level. Specifically, the film is somewhat propelled and later concluded by a well-written voice-over where Fernando makes poetic observations of a bee colony. Also, the dialogue is noticeably economical, as it often conveys the lucid reasoning behind Ana and Isabel’s observations of the world they inhabit. To a large extent, Ana’s ability to convey innocence is probably the film’s strongest asset in addition to its photographic appeal.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
This is a good film, but its greatness escapes me, perhaps due to the fact that its full effect requires us to decode “a coded message about Franco’s fascist regime”, as your review acknowledges. I agree with you that that the film works effectively as a poetic work about the imagination of children, but it is hard for me to dismiss the fact that there are dots to be connected. It is also difficult to dismiss that the association of these dots is difficult to identify. In fact, if I were to read how others may have interpreted the parallels in this film, I too would feel as though I was reading term papers. And while I also lament that an interesting filmmaker like Victor Erice only made a few films, The Spirit of the Beehive should not be given any additional weight based on its belonging to a short resume.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like The Spirit of the Beehive? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Tender Mercies
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive this week, he now has 301 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.