*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is generally accepted that a political meaning has to be decoded
whenever looking at this movie (it was filmed in the last years of
Franco's dictatorship in Spain, and the story takes place in 1940, a
year after the Spanish Civil War ended). But I suggest that one should
firstly pay attention to the closest level of meaning: that is, just
looking at the plain story narrated, metaphors aside. As 30 years after
it was filmed so many people all over the world finds the movie
fascinating it must be because of its emotive story about childhood
universe, narrated in a poetically quiet tone.
The life of Ana, a five year-old girl living in a little village of Castille, is subverted after watching James Whale's "Frankenstein" in a mobile cinema (the scene in itself is a cherished sample on the sociology of movie-going). The non appropriate for children movie raises questions in Ana, who is fascinated by the mystery of the Monster -or Spirit- as her older sister tells her that he lives close to their large house. For Ana, the heart of this mystery is the discovery of death amidst the lies of her sister and the oppressing family environment, dominated by the effects of war. Ana will be devoted to looking for the Spirit-Monster and when she finds a wounded fugitive soldier (a superb scene without words) she will feed and clothe him as she takes him for the Spirit; later on she will be shocked by the discovery of death. The mixture of reality and fantasy in a child's mind when dealing with the mysteries of life and death in the context of an alienated family and the devastated landscape of the postwar period in Spain, is the main story narrated from Ana's point of view.
There are other stories which can be interpreted in several ways: the enigmatic life of the father, devoted to writing about social organization of bees; the mother writing to a distant beloved one; the sister, who deceives Ana with stories and playing death. These other plots convey other meanings to the movie; in a second level of meaning it is possible to interpret the beehive and the large house as a metaphor for the isolated Spain after the war, the monster as the incarnation of totalitarianism (made up of death bodies and the mind of a criminal), the two sisters as the metaphor of the two bands that fought in the fratricide Spanish War, and even the encounter of Ana with the fugitive soldier could be interpreted as the impossibility for this two bands of the country for becoming reconciled. There was a political intention for the movie, but is the plain story of the discoveries in childhood what gives the film a lasting preeminence. It also stands out for the great cinematography and the acting of children.
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