The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

It wasn’t until I was six years old that I found out “they” still made new movies. Up until that point, I thought all we had to work with was what was already made; movies were just already there, making them wasn’t a thing people did. I was absolutely amazed when I learned new ones were coming out all the time. As an adult, of course this seems ridiculous and silly; why would I have thought such a thing? What misinterpretation of reality led to that belief? The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that touches on those questions. It examines the minds of children, their interpretations of cinema and also the world around them.

Ana watching Frankenstein for the first time.

Ana watching Frankenstein for the first time.

The film is set in the Spanish countryside, not long after the end of the Spanish civil war. Members of the small town gather together to watch James Whale’s Frankenstein for the first time ever. Children and old folks alike watch intently as the monster meets the little girl by the river, and later as the father carries her dead body through the town square. Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel, our two main characters, are particularly taken with this scene. Ana asks her older sister why the monster would kill the little girl. Isabel, in her all-knowing-big-sisterness, replies that movies are all a lie, and the monster isn’t really dead; his spirit is still alive, and if you know where to look for him, he’ll talk to you.

Ana and Isabel looking for the spirit.

Ana and Isabel looking for the spirit.

Soon after, the girls look for the monster in an abandoned building down the hill from their house. They find nothing but a large (maybe even monster-sized?) footprint, so Ana keeps going back hoping to find him. Isabel follows her, spying, perhaps realizing the power her story had on her younger sister’s understanding of reality. Things get a bit dangerous, though, when Ana meets a soldier who’s escaped and hides out in the abandoned building. She believes the soldier is the spirit she’s been waiting for, and brings him clothes and food. When she returns to the building and finds he’s gone, she runs away, launching a search party lasting all night through to the next morning.

Isabel's cruel joke.

Isabel’s cruel joke.

It’s during this night out alone that Ana finally meets the spirit she’s been searching for, and relives the scene from Frankenstein – but without being tossed in the river. In the morning Ana is recovered, and the doctors assure her parents that, while she’s had a very traumatic experience, she will soon forget everything and be back to normal, as if nothing had happened at all.

Ana and the soldier.

Ana and the soldier.

Of course, Ana didn’t really rendezvous with Frankenstein’s monster by a river on the Spanish countryside. This was either a hallucination (after all, she was out mushroom-hunting with her dad) or a dream. What matters is Ana’s imagination found a way for her to escape the world around her and create something beautiful for herself. I know this sounds maybe a little wacky, but I can’t help but compare this with Lucky McKee’s May; both Ana and May are living in less-than-perfect worlds, and both seek to escape – Ana from her war-torn family, and May from the cruel society into which she’s been thrust. It just so happens they both find comfort in monsters of their own creation. Both films have an impending sense of dread from start to finish – the difference is, The Spirit of the Beehive never really has any release; the dread seems to continue indefinitely, perhaps a hint of what it must have been like to live in Franco’s post-war Spain.

Ana and the spirit.

Ana and the spirit.

This movie is so quiet and unassuming, it took several days after watching it until I realized just how much it affected me, and what all the pieces of the puzzle come together to really mean. In his review, Roger Ebert talks about how the film is an allegory for living in Franco’s Spain, but that he prefers to think of the film by what it presents to us on the surface, and I have to agree with him. While the setting is obviously important, and the civil war has clearly wreaked havoc on Ana’s family and created the canvas onto which she paints her imaginary, it’s that imaginary that’s more interesting to me. Watching Ana interpret her older sister’s fibs into a reality brought me right back to my childhood, right back to the moment where my mother informed me new movies were coming out every day. It’s just a beautiful, evocative film that’s worth being patient for; in the age of explosions and never-ending fight scenes, what a pleasure to watch a movie that thrills you with its quiet vision rather than cheap visual effects. Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention how wonderful it is to watch Ana Torrent play the lead – her eyes are always wide open with questions, absorbing everything she sees to the fullest. It’s no wonder this is considered one of the best Spanish films out there.


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