El espiritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) (1973)
Director: Victor Erice.
Starring: Fernando Fernán Gómez (Fernando), Teresa Gimpera (Teresa), Ana Torrent (Ana), Isabel Tellería (Isabel), Ketty de la Cámara (Milagros, la criada), Estanis González (Guardia civil), José Villasante (The Frankenstein Monster), Juan Margallo (The Fugitive), Laly Soldevila (DoZa Lucía, the teacher), Miguel Picazo (The Doctor).
a child's attempts to make sense out of the horrific effects of the Franco dictatorship
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Somewhere on the Castilian plain, Spain, c. 1940.
The kids in a small, remote village are very excited because the movie truck has arrived and they will get to see a movie. The film to be shown is Frankenstein. The people of the village have to bring in chairs to the vacant room in order to sit and see the movie. Two sisters, the ten-year old Isabel and the six year old Ana, are among the children looking forward to seeing the movie. Their father, Fernando, works with the bees of his beehives. Their mother, Teresa, is writing a letter to a lover. They were parted by the Civil War and now Teresa, Fernando and the two girl are trying to survive in the isolated village. Teresa does not even know if the letter will reach its intended recipient. She asks her lover to write and let her know if he is still alive. Teresa rides her bike down to the railroad station in order to mail the letter.
Fernando goes past the ad-hoc movie theater. He stares at the movie poster for a while and then goes home. He can hear the movie from his window.
In the theater Ana is a bit shocked at seeing the image of the monster Frankenstein for the first time. Later she asks her sister why did Frankenstein kill the little girl and then why did the villagers kill Frankenstein. After the movie, the two girls run home shouting: "It's Frankenstein." In bed that night Isabel tells Ana that she saw Frankenstein in an old abandoned house with the water well. She says that Frankenstein is not dead; he is a spirit.
The next day the children go to their one-room school. After school, Isabel takes Ana to the abandoned house out in the wheat field. They both look into the well and then into the house. Ana shouts into the well, but there is no Frankenstein there. But she does see huge boot prints on the ground and compares the size of her shoe to one of the boot prints.
Isabel starts to strangle the family cat and gets scratched. She then covers her lips with her own red blood.
Isabel screams and Ana comes to investigate. Ana sees her sister sprawled out on the floor. She tries to get her sister to get up without success. So she goes to look for their servant Milagros to get some help. Milagros is not around and by the time Ana returns to where Isabel lay on the floor, her sister is gone. As Ana wonders what happened, Isabel sneaks up behind her and scares her. She then laughs at Ana's reaction.
Ana gets up early and goes outside. A freedom fighter jumps off the passing train and heads for the old abandoned house. Ana returns to her room and gets into bed. The next day she visits the old house and finds the freedom fighter. She is shocked to see that the man has a pistol. She gives him an apple. She leaves, but returns with her father's coat for the man to wear. At night there is automatic weapons fire lighting up the abandoned house.
Fernando goes down to see the freedom fighter's corpse. The police called him down to see the body because the man had Fernando's coat and watch (which was in one of the coat pockets). Fernando shakes his head to indicate that he does not recognize the body. Ana walks to the abandoned house, but finds it abandoned. She is upset when she sees a considerable number of blood stains inside the house. Her father shows up and tells her to come home with him. But Ana looks at him as if he were a monster and runs away. The people in the village begin a search for Ana. Teresa burns a letter that was to be sent to her lover.
During the night Ana walks along a stream. She stops and sees Frankenstein's face reflected in the water. She turns and sees Frankenstein behind her. The monster kneels by Ana beside the stream, just as in the movie.
The search for Ana continues the next morning. The family dog finds her asleep and barks that he has found her. Back home, the doctor pays a visit to Ana. Teresa tells him that Ana just seems to look through them without really seeing her family. The doctor tells Teresa that Ana will gradually forget what happened over time.
At night Ana goes out on the terrace and tells herself that if she really is a friend then she can talk to him any time she closes her eyes. She says: "I am Ana."
Good movie. But you need to know something about the background of the movie to appreciate it fully. My wife didn't care for it, but I figured there had to be a deeper meaning stemming from the history of the Franco dictatorship. Thankfully, the second disc contains the necessary information to fill in the blanks. Below are a few comments from that disc pieced together.
The Franco regime was a true horror to the liberals. In the cinema, it was a complete disaster. Nothing of value came out of the Franco regime. Things were difficult for film makers since films could easily be censored or destroyed. In later years the Cinema of Protest started. This cinema had to use a lot of symbolism and metaphor so that the criticism of Franco and his regime would be subtle enough to get past the censors. Starting in the 1960s the new Spanish cinema movement began and this film being reviewed here was one of these films. The film has to use subterfuge and so it exhibits emotional states of the film characters rather than rely on a narrative style.
The situation of the family in the movie is depressed and alienated. The wife does not love her husband and so writes love letters to her lover, separated from her by the Spanish Civil War. The husband seems to have become resigned to the situation and primarily spends his time caring for his beehives. In this atmosphere, the children are somewhat abandoned by their parents. The situation is made worse for daughter Ana, because her older sister likes to tease and pick on her. This atmosphere in the family reflects the sorry state of a small Castilian village trapped in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, where the Republicans had to live on in mute suffering after their defeat. The family lives in a village where language and communication seem forbidden. And in this terrible situation, Ana is left more or less alone to try to make sense out of the world around her. And her attempts at making sense of her world involves a great deal of imagination.
The film was the first to present a freedom fighter from the perspective of the losers, the Republican side. Before everything was designed to belittle the Republicans and lionize the fascists. The film also reminds the Spanish and others that there was fascism in Spain's history. Too many Spanish citizens try deliberately to forget that unpleasant fact.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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