The Spirit of the Beehive
In 1940, after watching and being traumatized by the movie Frankenstein (1931), a sensitive seven year-old girl living in a small Spanish village drifts into her own fantasy world.In 1940, after watching and being traumatized by the movie Frankenstein (1931), a sensitive seven year-old girl living in a small Spanish village drifts into her own fantasy world.In 1940, after watching and being traumatized by the movie Frankenstein (1931), a sensitive seven year-old girl living in a small Spanish village drifts into her own fantasy world.
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.
- Jun 17, 2005