Saturday, 21 January 2017

1,001 Films: "The Spirit of the Beehive/El Espiritu de la Colmena" (1973)

A year before Mel Brooks seized upon Frankenstein's creation myth for comedy purposes in Young Frankenstein, the Spanish director Victor Erice took Mary Shelley's tale - and James Whale's 1931 film - to launch a dramatic exploration of the strengths and failings of collectivity in General Franco's Spain. In The Spirit of the Beehive, we watch hordes cramming into the village hall for a screening of the Whale classic; children are taught how different body parts work together via an educational dummy stitched together much like Frankenstein's monster itself. Young Ana (Ana Torrent) and her sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria) apparently have the run of the country, imagining that the monster is hiding out in a nearby barn, comparing footprints in the cornfields and studying the moon's reflection in a lake. 

Erice thus mirrors Whale, but he holds that mirror at a political slant, catching more of the darkness as the sun goes down over this particular Spain, and far more of the black night sky. The actors come to be handled as if by Ana and Isabel's beekeeper father (Fernando Fernan Gomez): the children drone into the schoolhouse, flapping their little wings, while back at home, the grown-ups sit behind honeycomb-hexagonal stained glass, shot through with a sepia tone that makes it look as if honey's trickling down the walls and collecting on the film stock. Erice lulls us into a drowsy, late-summer feel, before hitting us over the head with a pot plant, and then setting our ears ringing with gunfire.

In the absence of any real narrative throughline, we get a film that, like the monster or a Cubist painting (Guernica: The Movie?), comes at us in bits and pieces: moments from the past, sewn together to come vividly alive in the present. Erice's imagery - a girl painting her lips with blood, or holding a cat down until it attacks - has a cruel, Surrealist edge, a sense of the torments already passed and those about to come. When the beekeeper describes his winged charges' movement as "enigmatic and maddened", he seems almost to be describing the film; but even with only one casualty of war - an escaped political prisoner? - depicted on screen, it's clear the movie's real monster is lurking around the corner and just out of shot.

The Spirit of the Beehive is currently unavailable on DVD.  

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