The Bittersweet Innocence of 'The Spirit of the Beehive'

A mobile cinema brings a screening of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein to a small Spanish village, and two sisters, Isabel and Ana, watch the film and it deeply impacts the latter, The Spirit of the Beehive’s story is as beautifully simple as it is symbolically heavy. Made towards the end of Franco’s regime in Spain, but set in its very early beginnings, Victor Erice’s directorial debut and masterpiece is filled to the brim with subtle symbolism overriding the strict censorship laws of the dictatorship and delivering an achingly heartbreaking tale of a child’s endless, beautiful imagination; an incredibly complex film whose every layer is enfolded in stark shots, a wistful score and a pending tone of bittersweet innocence.

The opening credits of the film unfold in accompaniment with a series of child drawings and a simple tune, the words “once upon a time...” appear on screen, and we are transported to Erice’s immaculate picture: the film immediately brings its setting to life with a lively display of community, as the truck bringing the film enters the town, all the children run after it screaming joyfully, and then a second later, the whole village is amassed in the town hall watching Frankenstein together. For a film that deals with the boundaries with reality and fiction, the impact of the latter is strongly felt and transmitted: film is one of the most powerful art forms, and its power is intensified when experienced collectively; images that bring to mind Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, the camera intercuts scenes from the pre-Code classic with close-ups of the children’s visible amazement, the impact is instantaneous and lifelong.

To ultimately give reign to the realm of the fantastic, Erice first displays the realities of the girls’ lives. Their father, old and busy with his beehives, tending to them and writing about them, is often distant and absorbed, and their mother even more so, fully captivated with a distant lover, to whom she writes letters and daydreams about. At night, laying awake in bed, the deceitful older sister Isabela tells Ana that Frankenstein’s monster is real and lives just outside of the village. The next day they go to an old abandoned house where the monster supposedly lives. These scenes are some of the film’s most beautiful and tender, with Ana Torrent’s incredible performance, definitely one of the best by a child in a film ever, and with a camera that primarily focuses on her innocent expressions, her startled reactions to her sister’s story and the sense of wonder she possesses, Ana’s screen presence is innocence embodied.

Beyond Ana’s strolls between barren reality and lively imagination, there is another rich layer to the film, and that is the way it supersedes the censorship laws of a dictatorship through subtle symbolism to portray and criticize. The village is surrounded by empty, unfertile lands symbolizing the isolated state of Spain under Franco’s reign, the beehives, with their aggressive restlessness, represent the inhumanity of the state and the complete disappearance of any sign of singularity, and the film’s messages only grow in their boldness as the film progresses, ultimately attacking the system head-on with its staging of the assassination of a deserter.

For a cinematographer who was going blind during production, Luis Cuadrado certainly delivered some of the most memorable visuals one can ever hope to see, thriving in their inconspicuousness and beautifully binding stark realism with the heartwarming innocence of a child, The Spirit of the Beehive paints an achingly beautiful tale of pure intentions, adventurous daydreams and fanciful visions, within it is a voice criticizing the painfully real and longing for the serenely surreal; Ana at the end of the film inhabits her own imaginary world, and the viewer only wishes they could too.


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