There’s something mystical about The Spirit of Beehive, something fragmentary that never confronts you directly but leaves a desolatory feeling. The film brings out to reel, rather marvelously, the inner subjectivity of a kid whose trying to come in terms with the outside world. It’s a tale of growing up where the facts, fiction and fantasy all form a seamless reality. To bring home this difficult subject matter Victor Erice uses the story of Frankenstein, with it being a parry of the story line as well as adverting towards it in several parallels. The story begins with Ana and her elder sister Issabel watching the movie Frankenstein in the village’s makeshift cinema hall, along with other kids and adults. The younger sister Ana is immediately stuck with the haunting premise of the story. Not that she’s scared but a lot more mystified and allured. Of some scenes shown, there was one where Frankenstein is shown playing with the girl. What she doesn’t understand is why Frankenstein kills the girl in the movie and why then further he himself is killed by the people. She asks her elder sister Isabel (elder only by a year or two) about this. Isabel beguiles her by saying that the monster is actually a spirit and meets only his friends, on being called. Isabel being elder and having past that tender age which Ana is in, understand the difference between fact and fiction. Ana is stuck with Frankenstein and Isabel still playing with her, points her towards a deserted house in a barren open as Frankenstein’s living place. Ana still hold with the whole idea visits the place several times and one day confronts a runaway fugitive there and immediately takes him for Frankenstein. She visits him once or twice with food but then later as reality clashes with her convoluted reality, the fugitive is killed by the local police. And as she visits the place next he’s not there but only few drops of blood. Startled and unable to comprehend and also as her father comes to realise her curious endeavors as he receives his timepiece and shoes from police as retrieved from the fugitive, she runs away. As she’s on her own at night, while the whole village searches for her, she had a mystical experience, having parallels to the Frankenstein’s story. Later she is found by the father along with police, and spends next few days without sleeping, talking or eating. The movie ends as she wakes up from her sleep and remembers what her sister told her about summoning Frankenstein, but she returns without calling for him. The ending in a way notes towards the end of age of innocence for her.
Though Ana takes the centre stage, the character of Isabel is also explored. Though bit elder than Ana, Isabel is still a child, though her feet are in firm grounds of reality, she’s still coming in terms with her sexuality. There’s one scene where she, while playing with a cat, accidently cuts her finger and then playfully, though consciously she smears the blood on the lips and looks at herself in a mirror. Isabel mischievous doesn’t ends with her fueling the innocent curiosity of Ana, but there’s also a scene where she plays dead in order to frighten Ana.
The movie is set in the post war era where the town is shown reeling under the after effects of the war. The place is unassumingly quite. Ana’s father who’s a beekeeper is also shown writing something, fragments of which are spoken in a voice over.
“Someone to whom I recently showed my glass beehive, with its movement like the main gear wheel of a clock, someone who saw the constant agitation of the honeycomb, the mysterious, maddened commotion of the nurse bees over the nests, the teeming bridges and stairways of wax, the invading spirals of the queen, the endless varied and repetitive labours of the swarm, the relentless yet ineffectual toil, the fevered comings and goings the call to sleep always ignored, undermining the next day’s work, the repose to death far from a place that tolerates neither sickness nor tombs. Someone who observed these things, after the initial astonishment has passed, quickly looked away with an expression of indescribable sadness and horror. . . ”
The voice over above interestingly appears twice in the movie, once in the beginning and then towards the end. At one level it seems to point out towards the monotone monotonous aspect of life, where we humans keep on performing the seemingly same activities all over again without having any cue about the higher plan. The title The Spirit of Beehive also seems to point towards this inconsequential aspect of human life. Though the war is not shown in the movie but in its after effects, the need of moving on after it and also the elusive meaning of it as its over now, is what the spirit of beehive is all about. On another level the voice over points towards the loss of ‘innocence of childhood’ as the end of any fascination whatsoever towards life that one could have had.
Apart from the arresting world of facts, fantasy and realization, what makes this movie exceedingly special is the austere cinematography, the scenes are often long and almost empty with two or three characters filling the space, even the landscape seems to follow that rule. All the village seems to be painted with that dusty beehive like color. Even the window furnishings have a beehive like structure. Also the flute based music seems to rhyme with the background. All this add a sad, melancholic hue to everything.
The performance by Ana (by Ana Torrent) has to be the one of the greatest performance ever by any child actor. The great performance also stems from the fact that she was playing her age at that time. As per the director the questions that Ana asks about Frankenstein are actually the ones that Ana Torrent asked during the movie production as she watched the movie for the first time. Other comparable performances that I can think of come from Pan’s Laybrinth, 400 Blows and Where’s My Friends Hose?.
Here’s an informative review about the historical background and overtures about the background of the movie.