El Espíritu de la colmena
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 24 March 2006
Source Janus 35mm Print
“Information from outside is scarce and confused,” Teresa writes in a letter to her distant lover. As she rides her bicycle across her small Castilian village, we see the agent that will carry her message away; a train lumbers along rails that stretch beyond the flat horizon. Somewhere down these tracks, the world is busy conducting the remote business of war. A soldier glances at Teresa through the window of the train, and she looks back. Perhaps it is a glance of significance, or perhaps not.
Back in the village, another messenger arrives: a traveling film projectionist, bearing a worn print of a strange and wondrous film called Frankenstein. The town hall is crowded with expectant villagers, among whom are Teresa’s daughters, six year-old Ana and her older sister, Isabel. The lights are dimmed, tobacco smoke fills the room, and on the tattered screen a dubbed Edward Van Sloan addresses the audience in Spanish:
How do you do. Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation, life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may even shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to … Well, we’ve warned you!
Gesturing to both science and mysticism, religiosity and the carnivalesque, Van Sloan’s introduction is a clear theatrical come-on, designed to forecast the pleasurable shocks and horrors to follow. Tantalized, Ana and Isabel await these shocks with eyes wide open.
The Spirit of the Beehive appropriates Van Sloan’s come-on to draw the spectator into its own world of fears and wonders, specifically those of childhood. Watching the horrors of James Whale’s film onscreen — a dark brutish monster, a menacing, expressionistic landscape — the two sisters (and most especially Ana) are drawn for perhaps the first time into the irresoluble mysteries of death, of unspeakable desires, and of things that go bump in the night. With the death of the young girl in Frankenstein, the dangers of the world become palpable and the cryptic evils of the world creep almost imperceptibly into the once safe and amber-set world of youth.
Like Whale’s great film, Spirit of the Beehive plays with dim uncertainties. In Frankenstein, the shot in which Karloff kills the little girl, tossing her into the lake, was excised from release prints of the film, not because it proved too shocking for some audiences, but because Karloff believed that it impugned the character of the Monster as he wanted to portray him. Karloff had wanted to place the child gently in the water; Whale demanded that she be thrown. As it stands, the absence of the actual death of the child lends the film a central ambiguity that is picked up by Erice’s Ana: did the monster actually kill the child? If so, why? If not, why did the townspeople kill the monster? Herein lies the secret of cinema and of this film in particular: what one does not see can be more important than what one does, especially when what is seen is so unreliable and ambiguous.
In this way, Spirit of the Beehive is a somewhat unconventional film about childhood, its perils and peregrinations, and Ana a somewhat unconventional child-heroine. Rather than the usual plucky, resourceful role models who usually become the protagonists of children’s movies, Ana is susceptible, even if she is not quite sheepish. The earlier scenes in the film show her and her sister’s pre-school frolicking and mischievous post-bedtime activities, but Ana is herself a character whose passage into independence is fraught with a growing awareness of the world’s terrors and uncertainties. Just as the viewer is only dimly aware of the shadow of the Spanish Civil War somewhere beyond the Castillian plateau of the film’s setting, Ana has only a vague grasp of the hazards of wandering in the forest at night, befriending large strangers, eating wild mushrooms, and summoning mythical figures.
Ana’s sister Isabel, like Van Sloan, is herself a sort of showman, a mischievous fabulist whose bold inquisitiveness, with mere glints of malice and puberty, seems to mesmerize her suggestible younger sister. It is Isabel’s suggestion that the real Monster’s invisible spirit can be found somewhere beyond their father’s beehive that spurs Ana’s curiosity about the limits of her world. And like their father, who spends his days and nights trying to divine the secrets of the bees in the intricate amber network of their hive, Ana is seduced by the mysteries of the world, wanting to see for herself what lies beyond the dark forest.
In his recent monograph on The Thin Red Line, Michel Chion notes that the great alchemy of the cinema is its ability to shrink and expand the world, to place objects of all sizes onscreen on the same scale:
When we grow up, something happens that adults don’t talk about or don’t remember: the world gets smaller. From then on everything is in some sense distorted, and this may help to make the world slightly disappointing.
Cinema returns objects to a larger size and, at the same time, may mix up scales. Before cinema, phenomena of different scales could be made comparable only by words, particularly the words of poetry. Cinema has the privilege of being able to do this too …
Erice’s film also confuses these scales of the imperceptibly small and the imperceptibly large, the secrets within and those without. Ana’s fearful, credulous eyes are as wide as the flat Castilian horizon, striated by clouds and railroad tracks, which reach beyond the known world.