Set in 1940s post-war Spain, Ana and her sister Isabel go to the movies one evening to see a screening of Frankenstein. Afterward, Ana becomes fascinated with the story and nature of Dr Frankenstein’s creation – the monster. As she seeks out ways to explore her fascination, she retreats from her family life, which is portrayed as isolated, disconnected and laden with a terrible sadness. One night Ana runs away from home and, as if in a fantasy, encounters the monster. The next day she is brought back home by her father but that same night she calls to the monster again by announcing her presence before its mystical power, closing the film with the simple words: ‘Soy yo, Ana’ (It’s me, Ana).
‘Is he a ghost?’ This is the question that the young, wide-eyed Ana (Ana Torrent) asks her sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) in a memorable scene from Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, where the two girls, late one night, discuss the identity of the monster in the movie they have just seen. That movie, the most prominent example of intertextuality in Erice’s film, is of course none other than James Whale’s 1931 ‘original horror show’, Frankenstein. Isabel’s answer is at once simple and evocative. ‘No, he’s a spirit’, she tells Ana. Since the release of The Spirit of the Beehive, critics have debated the significance of the film’s poetic but in many ways enigmatic title, focusing largely on the numerous allusions to insularity and hierarchy implied by the word ‘beehive’, and which are closely associated with the authoritative father (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who himself is a beekeeper. It has been suggested that the figure of the beehive is also a metaphor for the isolation of war-torn Spain, depicted in the film through the melancholic and remote village ‘somewhere on the Castilian plain’ and visually reinforced with images of the dark, cloistered interior of the family house, the honeycomb-shaped windows of which diffuse a diaphanous yellow light. But the meaning of ‘spirit’ in the film’s title is far less easily discernible. The word itself denotes a non-material presence or the affect of an invisible entity. In fact, when Ana inquires why they killed the monster, Isabel unhesitatingly explains that he could not have been killed since she has seen him alive and since ‘spirits do not have bodies’ anyway. Indeed, the question of ‘spirit’ – its location, visualisation, embodiment and feeling – governs not only the film’s visual aesthetic but also its narrative. In the same scene, Isabel also cautions her sister not to believe everything she sees ‘Because everything in the movies is fake. It’s all a trick’. Earlier, this same idea is voiced in the presenter’s preliminary announcement to the screening of Frankenstein: ‘It’s one of the strangest stories ever told’, he warns the audience. ‘It’s about the great mysteries of creation: life and death. Prepare yourselves. You may be shocked, or even horrified! Few films have had greater impact all over the world. But I would advise you not to take it too seriously’. That the movies stir emotions and yet are not to be believed, or at least not believed too much, is certainly not a new concept, but its double inclusion here leads us to wonder if at the heart of Erice’s film lies a deep interest in the ‘spirit of cinema’. Erice himself has written extensively about the medium as an artistic language able to conjure ghosts and bring back the past. In many ways, and much like his two later feature-length films, El sur (The South, 1983) and El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light, 1992), Erice’s critically acclaimed and internationally celebrated 1973 debut masterpiece ruminates on the ‘mysteries of creation’.
Aside from the monster’s spirit, which fascinates and troubles the protagonist, other mysteries are cultivated as well through the film’s mise en scène which channels the vitality of place: the desolate but captivating landscape on the outskirts of Hoyuelos, the ruinous charm of an abandoned barn and adjacent well, the enchanted forest where the girls pick mushrooms with their father. A shot from the forest of the neighbouring hillsides, bucolic and shrouded in a dense fog, implies that they too are a secret hiding place, perhaps a reference to the maquis, an anti-Francoist resistance movement; the father also alludes to a supernatural element, commenting that the best mushrooms are ‘over there’ and that he will take the girls one day if they promise not to say anything to their mother. Even the family house seems to possess a certain vibrancy that emits an attractive yet mystifying energy. Though these places appear largely uninhabitable, they nevertheless absorb the subject who enters into them.
We could say that The Spirit of the Beehive contains the kernel of what will become the main subject of the auteur’s later projects: the mystery of cinema. By equal measure, the film is also invested in the experience and power of cinematic revelation – a point underscored in the documentary-style ‘movie theatre’ sequence, where the camera captures the audience’s spontaneous reactions to what ostensibly is their first time viewing of the film within the film. This is perhaps also why Erice’s visual compositions so often contain few establishing shots and use a transition style that frequently displaces the viewer, allowing our awareness of shifts in point of view, setting and narrative time to unfold in a gradual, reflective process.
In this regard, we might note the film’s strong resemblance to painting. Given the steady, hypnotic pace of long takes and delicate composition of cinematic images that arrestingly move into stillness, Erice’s cinematography has been likened to tableaux. His images seem to meditate on the quality and duration of light, perhaps delving into yet another mystery wherein each shot strives to make the invisible visible. One can recall any number of examples of visual ellipses where the time of the shot lingers beyond narrative time to measure the way light sways, or the way it is cast onto objects and flickers in the dark (of course, the study of light and its relationship to painting will become the primary focus of Dream of Light or The Quince Tree Sun, filmed nearly two decades after The Spirit of the Beehive).
But it is not only light that fascinates Erice. The experiential quality of time is a point of intrigue in his work as well. This is what Erice’s contemporary, the much-admired Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, might have called ‘sculpting time’. The acute attention given to the symbiotic relationship between time and light is a particular element that marks Erice’s work not just as ‘painterly’, but also as intensely photographic. One interesting moment where time, light and space converge is with the extraordinary and now iconic image of Ana and Isabel waiting on the railroad tracks. As the tracks bisect the frame, vanishing into the horizon, the girls listen attentively, ears pressed firmly to the metal frame of the rails in an effort to feel the pulse of the train arriving, which after several minutes rhythmically charges through the landscape, bringing a rush of movement to this otherwise static place. In a sense, the train measures time, but what the shot (and Luis Cuadrado’s exquisite photography) remarkably reproduce is the time of waiting – first for the train’s arrival, then for its passage – as an extremely sensorial experience. A haptic cinema in which the screen fills with feeling and time seems tangible.
In The Spirit of the Beehive, the time of dreams and play, as well as cinematic time and the time of the past all constitute alternate temporalities that traverse the time of the present – 1940, as the intertitle at the beginning of the film indicates. We should not forget however that the film opens yet another window onto the temporal possibility of mythic time. A preceding intertitle, which reads ‘once upon a time’, introduces the larger framework of fairytale that brackets the ‘real time’ of narrative action. Luis del Pablo’s sound motifs further underscore these temporal distinctions, oscillating between ethereal flute music that recalls children’s songs and the harsh reality of the train whistle. As one critic has observed, Erice’s cinema might best be characterised as ‘frames within frames’, which could refer just as much to physical structures that give the film its architectural look (doors, windows, façades and especially thresholds, a key image with which the film concludes), as to temporal configurations that anchor and un-anchor time.
Of course, the main characters are drawn into this entanglement of real and imaginary time on a diegetic level as well: whereas the mother writes about time, the father keeps time with his pocketwatch (in a curious voiceover, he reads a passage from his diary that describes a glass beehive as the ‘movement … of a clock’). The girls also gauge time through a series of daily rituals (going to school, frequenting the train tracks, visiting the tattered barn). And the fugitive whom Ana befriends, presumably a republican soldier in exile, is inserted back into time after accidentally having been gifted the father’s pocket-watch. As a marginal but no less crucial character in the film, the fugitive embodies temporality in many intriguing ways. Unlike the monster, who is never really killed, the fugitive is executed one night in a scene that is literally shot in the dark. Through death he is reinstated back into not only the present time of our viewing, but also the immortal time of cinema. His body is displayed directly beneath the film screen in the town hall, which previously doubled as the town’s improvised movie theatre.
Not coincidentally, just as the fugitive’s body enters into the space of cinema, which is portrayed as the domain of the law, the monster’s body materialises outside the theatre, ‘appearing’ to Ana in the middle of the night shortly after she has run away from home.
Here, the reference to horror implied by Frankenstein, but ultimately never screened, is remapped onto the figure of the outlaw, whose body and the traces of violence inflicted upon it are shown. Some critics have compared the two – monster and fugitive – as embodiments of ‘otherness’. But perhaps more accurately, we should note their difference: whereas one exemplifies a fictional invention that comes to life, the other represents the living dead that can only be revived once subsumed by a space of fiction. Thus, to equate Ana with ‘otherness’ since she pursues both figures, at times literally following in their footsteps, may be too simple. Like the film, she is never completely within or outside of the boundary between reality and fiction, but rather stands as an intermediary who connects to both simultaneously.
A haunting visual achievement, The Spirit of the Beehive could easily be categorised as a film about film – that is, about how film not only creates multiple planes of time but also seduces the viewing subject into the powerful world of fantasy that it projects. But it is equally a work about childhood. In fact the themes of childhood innocence and loss permeate the film from the opening credit sequence comprised of children’s drawings (apparently real drawings done by the two lead child actresses) to the very last shot of Ana, bathed in moonlight as she stands in the threshold of the house after having summoned the spirit outside.
What the film portrays is the child’s unique ability to perceive horror in a new light. This ability, and in Ana’s case this desire to see and understand something rendered horrifying, is a point that visually resonates with different references to sight (the school anatomy lesson with don José, the film screening) and close-up shots of eyes, those organs of asking, as poet and critic John Berger calls them. But Ana’s willingness to seek out the spirit sets her apart. That the film relies so heavily on the presence of – and anticipated encounter with – this mysterious spirit, is a fact that invites further reflection. As tempting as it may be to ascribe an allegorical meaning wherein the spirit becomes a metaphor for Spanish history, we might learn more by considering its non-allegorical implications.
For spirits are things that return from a time and space beyond the present moment, making that moment strangely out of touch with itself. But, this return also signals a way in which we can be affected by other senses and experiences of time. This is, after all, perhaps the most compelling definition of cinematic experience. For Erice, widely considered to be a visionary, the cinema is nothing if not a way of coming into contact with what has been lost, a way of ‘bringing back what was once seen’.
But whether this means invoking the ghosts of history, or experiencing cinema’s ghosts, remains open to interpretation. Either way, the beauty with which Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive poses this question to us will endure for ages to come.
Patricia M. Keller
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Spain. Production Company: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas, Jacel Desposito. Director: Víctor Erice. Screenwriters: Ángel Fernández-Santos and Víctor Erice. Producer: Elías Querejeta. Cinematographer: Luis Cuadrado. Editor: Pablo González Del Amo. Music: Luis de Pablo. Cast: Ana Torrent (Ana), Isabel Tellería (Isabel), Fernando Fernán Gómez (Fernando), Teresa Gimpera (Teresa), Milagros (Queti de la Cámara), José Villasante (Frankenstein’s monster), Juan Margallo (the fugitive).]
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