At least two very respectable persons (one the aforementioned Beardsley and the other to be called “Ayle-sa”) recommended to me Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena), and they each did so more than once. This spells out almost certain doom for a film – not because they’re wrong about the film, but because my expectations fly up, as Buster Bluth would say, “a little too close to the sun.” Nevertheless, this was a truly delightful movie, one shunned by most academics, and for good reason. Some films defy…not analysis so much as dissection. They’re too beautiful in all their wholeness to be cut up into pieces or reduced to a particular example of a particular movement in cinema blah blah. Spirit of the Beehive is beautiful, as I told dear Beardsley who showed it to me, for not only depicting a child in her natural element but also leaving the viewer with no choice but to recall palpably what childhood was and should continue to be. The film’s casting couldn’t have been better; the little girl was precious without being precious, as it were. Víctor Erice thematized the curiosity inherent in childhood into (something like) the incredulity toward sight; the eyes can’t be trusted. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but photos most certainly can lie. It’s been a few days now since watching the film, but scores of examples (only some of which I can recall) validate this claim. Ana (the main character) is tricked be her sinister older sister Isabel. Not only does Isabel enjoy strangling the family cat, but she plays cruel sight gags on Ana. She tells Ana about a local friendly apparition, knowing that Ana will believe her. The magic of the film occurs when Ana concludes that a wounded, escaped convict is this spirit. Her kindness to him lifts the viewer’s soul high only to crash down when Ana (again, deceived by sight) sees blood in the place of the man and concludes that her father has killed him. Isabel’s earlier deception of Ana, playing dead to scare her younger sister, foreshadows a real death later, the aftermath of which Ana will witness. The sequence of Ana searching the estate grounds for someone to help when she thinks Isabel is dead or unconscious is stirring, demanding an answer to the question, who would mislead such a beautiful person? Ana retains the spirit of her childhood (=”the spirit of the beehive”?) despite forces surrounding her attempting to hasten her move to adulthood.
As for the theme of sight, Erice is seemingly conscious of the nature of the cinematic medium as he critiques and at the same time applauds childlike belief in the visible. The film opens with a screening of Frankenstein in the town. For a film to begin with a film within certainly acknowledges the interplay occuring, as we see over the heads of numerous Spanish villagers the projected image of Frankenstein’s monster; our view is exactly where the film projector stands, as if the diegetic projector and the actual camera are the same unit. Later in the film, the theater – apparently the only public building in town – is used as a makeshift morgue when the convict is brought in dead. Instead of visually hungry children gazing entranced at the screen, there is a corpse. The image is dead, it has deceived us. The empty square that the projected film filled is a grey box, and the man that Ana believed was the spirit of the beehive is just a dead prisoner. One wonders if Erice is almost apologizing for giving us this film and yet doing so still, as a necessary evil. He commends to us Ana, the pure but not sentimentalized child whose assumptions, though strictly speaking inaccurate, propelled her to goodness and generosity.
PS: Mushrooms, hallucination, mother’s fake-sleeping, Ana mistaking film for reality contribute further to above theme. Also, thanks again to DVD Beaver for stills.