24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Every once in a while I stumble upon a masterpiece. This is a masterpiece of childhood set in Franco's Spain in 1940. There are political allusions and asides that somehow escaped Franco's censors, or maybe they were indulged. It matters not because the bleak landscape surrounding the house with its honeycombed windows and its honey colored light says more than words could.
I would compare this favorably with two other masterpieces of childhood, the French films, Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games) (1952), and Ponette (1996) What is explored in all three of these films is the reality of childhood that we have forgotten, the intensity of first knowledge, of things experienced for the first time, the wonder and the horror that such experiences may contain. But more than that there is the unconditioned sense of life that the child experiences. When Ana sees the fugitive (from Franco, one imagines) who has injured his leg jumping off the train, she immediately knows what is essential in this situation. The man is hurt. He is hungry. He needs help. She gives him an apple from her lunch pail, which he eagerly devours. Although she has been scared by a Frankenstein movie and her sister's pretence of death and gloved hands around her face, she is not afraid.
This is the most laconic of films. Almost everything is done with the camera and the events. The children laugh and play and watch the world with wonder. They say a few words, direct and to the point. Six year old Ana (Ana Torrent) has dark eyes as big as saucers which she trains on the world as if to bore into the very nature of existence. Her older sister Isabel's eyes sometimes form slits of mischief or delight as she tests reality or teases her sister.
The pace of the film is deliberately slow. The essay by famed Spanish film expert Paul Julian Smith contained in the booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection two-disc set includes Smith's remark that when the film was first shown in San Sebastian in 1973 where it won the main prize, "Some of the audience, restless at the film's slow pace, even booed."
There is a technique in the theater, not so much observed today, that also works well in movies. Slow it down, begin with everyday, mundane events, and play them long like honey slowly oozing, so much the better to contrast with the events to come, and give those events the contrast they deserve as they have in real life. Director Victor Erice does this to fine effect. How drawn out seem the lessons at school, and how tedious. But such is the life of a child when every day is a little eternity, where so much happens that when the lights go out, the child falls into a deep, dreamless sleep for many hours at a stretch. We have forgotten this world of the child, but Erice reminds us.
I was not restless because, although the pace is indeed slow, the cinematography by Luis Cuadrado and the terse silent events of innocence set against the background of the late Spanish Civil War portended events to come. Just what those events might be it was impossible to guess; however it was clear there would be no compromise with audience expectations or any catering to any sort of correctness, political or otherwise. And this is part of what makes a great film.
Character, story, suspense, an important theme, beautiful visuals, truth--artistic truth of course, psychological human truth--and attention to detail: these are also what make a great film. And they are all here in El espíritu de la colmena.
Erice plays with our emotions of course. We are nearly terrified that something is going to happen to these beautiful little girls, and indeed once or twice it appears that our worst fears are realized. Are they or are they not?
It is said that Ana was traumatized by viewing the Frankenstein movie and by her sister's horrid joke, and then by the blood she sees in the old building by the well where the fugitive had rested. But I think it would be better to say that Ana was challenged by new-found knowledge of the ever close proximity of death, and in reaction she ran away into her own world to find an answer. Notice how the scene from James Wales' Frankenstein in which the monster kneels beside the water with the little girl is repeated in Ana's fantasy, and how she looks at the monster with big, wide-open, questioning, waiting eyes. What is life, and what is death? And, know this: I will always live in fear and dread if I do not know what they are and if cannot face them.
When she encounters the Frankenstein monster at the water's edge she has only her beauty to protect her. But that beauty resides in our head--in Frankenstein's head--and so she is safe. This is part of the deep psychology of the film, wondrously achieved, perhaps part by art and part by happenstance.
I believe that is what Ana experienced in her mind. But we do not know. We do not know the mind of the child. And we have forgotten what it is to be a child. Erice's masterpiece helps us to remember.
There is a documentary about the film on the second disc with interviews with Erice and with Angel Fernandez Santos who worked with Erice on the script, and others. We see Ana Torrent all grown up, which is what I most wanted to see. And we learn how the film was made. A masterpiece, it is my belief, whether it is in cinema or literature, in chess or music, or in some other art form always brings together unconscious elements that fuse with conscious intent. It is only later that we recognize what happened.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 25 October 2002
To fully understand 'The Spirit of the Beehive' (El Espiritu de la Colmena), one has to understand the context in which it was made. Although the film is set in 1940 it was produced in 1973, two years before the death of Franco, the end of his dictatorship, and the political and cultural repression which characterised it.
Erice manages to brilliantly depict the traumas of a family of republican sympathisers, struggling to come to terms with life under the fascist regime. What is special, is that he creates a powerful critique of the regime, and a call to arms to all those who believe in democratic values to prepare for the dictators then-imminent death, without saying anything that could actually be censored.
As a result, much of the imagery used in the film can be hard to grasp, and indeed is open to multiple interpretations - what is the significance of the beehives, of Frankenstein's monster (many say Franco but I disagree), the railway etc.? -I will leave it for you to theorise and debate on these and other aspects.
The performances are masterful, particularly young Ana Torrent and the great Fernando Fernan-Gomez, whose much later film 'The Butterfly's Tongue' has echoes of 'The Spirit of the Beehive' in it. What is more, the mood and atmosphere of repression are extraordinarily well recreated.
This work is not the easiest film I have ever watched, but it is without doubt one of the most rewarding
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 27 November 2012
This movie is slow-paced which fits in with the rural context.
The cinematography is indeed special and beautiful.
The setting is a rural spanish village, in 1940, with barely any concrete impact from outside the village. The main characters are two young sisters, Isabel and Ana.
The child-perspective is exceptionally well evoked.
There is not much music in the movie which has a powerful effect.
Almost all scenes end with a fade-out, and this creates the feel of a series of impressions.
There is not much of a story; in the first 20 minutes one experiences barely a story or direction. This does not disturb at all, and it does create a certain tension.
In most scenes there is a sort of `leaving things and happenings without concrete or clear meaning': things and happenings seem to be left to themselves. In combination with the child-perspective this is quite powerful.
This leaving things to themselves also creates a mysterious atmosphere, an `unheimlichkeit', an atmosphere that somehow also becomes charged.
The theme of death is repeatedly present, in various ways.
The mother of the girls has little contact with them; she appears unhappy, passive, possibly traumatized. The father of the girls has a couple of times proper contact with the girls.
I do not know much of Spanish politics and history and I am convinced that this movie is a pearl without experiencing political-historical symbolism in it.
The movie is well-proportioned, with few exaggerations or artificial input.
The acting of the sisters, especially of Ana, is amazing, powerful.
All in all, this is an exceptional good movie, proportionate and subtle, a veritable artistic achievement, with beautiful images and a powerful evocation of the life-world of the child.
Thank you Victor Erice for this wonderful contribution.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2003
Many filmmakers use children, but few understand them; even fewer can remember what it was like to be a child themselves; virtually none can communicate that feeling. Erice's feature hums with the magic and awe of childhood. Every adult should see it at least once; whether you can bear to experience more than once the sense of loss that comes when it ends is another matter.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 12 June 2013
This film I would want to see again even if rather minimal in action and of a certain crudity in technique which I felt greatly added to its charm. The darling Ana Torrent as a small girl was absorbingly an onlooker for much of the film and yet , protagonist as the story evolved. In the end nothing happened but one was left with the feeling that an undercurrent of horror was going on under the surface in a Spain of Franco's post Civil War.No information was explicit in the film about the identity of the man shot down but we read that he was a deserter of the army. The scene where the sister feigned death in a game between children was highlighted in a spectral way as there was no real reaction to Ana's screaming for help and when she came back to the room the "dead" sister was lurking to scare her again. I thought that scene was so real and it revealed how the horror so called of Frankenstein was a small thing compared with the reaity of the life of these people. I also loved the raw feeling of rural life in Spain of the 40's.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2004
In Castile on the eve of the Second World War a traveling show brings a movie to town. Ana Torrent plays a little girl (also named Ana) who sees Boris Karloff's "Frankenstein" and is convinced the monster is real. She ends up befriending a wounded fugitive, believing him to be the monster. Victor Erice's haunting film is obviously a political statement on life in Spain during Franco's reign, but it functions even better as testimony to the power of a child's imagination and the fatal loss of innocence that invariable comes to us all. Not a film for children, who will neither recognize nor appreciate the warning, but for those of us who will always cherish the children we once were, and the world in which we wanted to live. "The Spirit of the Beehive" is a film to treasure forever.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 2 September 2005
"Spirit of the Beehive" begins with 'once upon a time', an epithet which, while it translates us into a world of children, simultaneously opens our eyes to the contrasting vision of fairytale and the reality of the adult world.
Set in a Castilian village in 1940, the Second World War has already engulfed Europe. Spain has just emerged from its Civil War, Franco is hunting down Republican sympathisers, and there is still a prospect that he will enter the war on the side of Hitler. This seems a bleak, unwelcoming place, but down the road comes a lorry ... a lorry bringing an evening of cinema to the villagers. Tonight it will be 'Frankenstein', projected onto a whitewashed wall while the audience bring their own chairs and cushions and settle in hushed expectation.
Director Victor Erice captures the wonder of cinema and its electrification of the imagination. His tale follows the lives of two sisters - Ana and Isabel - who become engrossed in the film. Young Ana, in particular, becomes obsessed with the notion that she can communicate with the monster and goes in search of him. She will, instead, find an escaped Republican prisoner hiding in a barn - she brings him food and clothing (echoes, here, of 'Whistle Down the Wind', or even 'Great Expectations').
It's a tale of growth, discovery and wonderment as Ana recognises her identity and the power of her own mind to shape her own world. Erice's characters make sense of the world around them, and are often highly introspective in character. Ana talks with her sister, but rarely communicates with anyone else. Her father studies bees, shutting himself off from the political world - he seems unable to communicate with people. And her mother writes letters to a former lover, banished to France after the Civil War.
The characters are all, in their own way, self-contained, seeking their own definitions of their world and of themselves, but expressive of the loss of identity and role which Franco's triumph created, and the isolation Spain would experience after the defeat of Hitler - shunned by much of Europe. Erice's film is not overtly political - Franco was still in power when it was made - but it nevertheless offers a commentary on the experience of dictatorship.
It's a visually stunning piece of filmmaking. Though the setting is bleak and lacking in any sort of glamour, Erice captures the dreamlike, fantasy quality of childhood. Ana Torrent delivers a mesmerising performance as the young Ana, beautifully portraying the essence of childhood innocence and imagination.
Regarded as a masterpiece of the Spanish cinema, "The Spirit of the Beehive" is a visual poem which seduces and holds your attention. It is a delight to watch.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2013
Undeniably slow but perfectly developed honey-coloured marvel which touches on life's bitter-sweet contradictions between war and peace, heroism and disengagement, absent parents and independent children, life and art, ugliness and beauty, cruelty and kindness, knowledge and ignorance, with possibly the best performance by a child you will ever see. Will stand the test of time better than Pan's Labyrinth (another great film), of which it is a clear ancestor, because it 'suggests' rather than mythologizes.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 28 January 2011
This film leaves a lasting impression and bears repeated viewings and contemplation. The child actors are astonishingly good. The cinematography assembles images that enchant and challenge the eye. The director's touch is delicate and unhurried. The blending of political allegory and magical realism is almost perfectly achieved. It is a lovely aspect of 21st century life that one can gain access to great films like this one.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 April 2015
Childhood is a time when the world is still formless, not yet solid, when dreams and reality overlap, when everything looks and feels magical, when our days and minds are dominated by curiosity, wonder, discovery, confusion. What is this place, this world? Why am I here and how did I come to be in it? What does it mean and where did all this beauty come from?
We look at the world as children do in Victor Erice's cinematic masterpiece, The Spirit of the Beehive, the greatest Spanish film of the 1970s.
Ana is only 7. Isabel, her older sister, is 10. They live in a remote Castilian village. The year is 1940, a time when civil war rages in Spain. The father of Ana and Isabel is a beekeeper. He is aloof and remote, not because he wants to ignore his children. Other things distress him: politics and war, perhaps, or something more personal. His wife, the mother of his children, is distant too, preoccupied. She cycles to the train station several times a week, letters in hand, not trusting them to anyone but the postman. They are love letters. She is lonely for the love of someone who is absent. The husband notices of course, but pretends not to, and she in turn pretends not to notice that he pretends not to notice. The Buddhists call this condition samsara, the wheel of endless suffering.
The bees and hives become the father's meditation. The apiary is orderly, disciplined, egalitarian. The hive works together for the good of all. Why can't man be like this? Why are his communities so weak and flimsy? Why does he think war will bring anything other than long-lasting suffering?
Ana and Isabel are alone in their world, the only people. They share it with ghosts, goblins, spirits. Isabel the wise one, the older one, has stories to tell. Ana listens with big eyes, stock still. Her sister, she knows, is an oracle.
At night Ana is afraid. Spirits wander through the darkness. She knows this because Isabel said so. Besides, she feels them. She stays under the covers of her bedding where it is safe. "Isabel" she whispers again and again in the dark. But Isabel doesn't answer. She is asleep in her own bed in the room. Ana is alone in the darkness — alone with monsters that roam the land.
Once a month the movie truck comes to the village. A makeshift screen in set up in the village hall. A projector and reels are brought in. The children sit restlessly on their wooden chairs. They are anxious, excited, worried. They have heard of the monster before, this terrible being who has come to their village. They have seen his awful face on the tattered movie poster outside. He is ugly and mean. His name is Frankenstein.
A hush when the movie begins, then delighted giggles as the images move and dance through the darkened hall. Then later, gasps, squeals, screams as the monster appears, rising like Jesus from the dead, though looking nothing like gentle Jesus. No apostles, either, no joyous weeping. Ana watches the screen, confused and terrified. Frankenstein kills the little girl. Ana can't believe it. Why did he do it? She was innocent, sweet and darling. He didn't mean to but he did it. He drowned her in the lake.
A search party from the village sets out by torchlight to find her but can't. The following day she is found. Her father carries her wet body in his arms through the village.
The world is evil. There are monsters in it. This is what Ana has learned.
Isabel drops a bombshell that night: she has seen the monster, she says. He was near a farmhouse outside the village, and also by a local river. Ana trembles at this news. But she is fascinated, drawn to the world of spirits Isabel knows so well. A deserter from the war hops a train. He jumps from the train near Ana's village. He hobbles to the farmhouse that Isabel has described. Although Isabel is a child of vivid imagination too, Ana believes everything she says. Irresistibly, Ana is drawn to the farmhouse as well. She must see the monster too. He is large, silent, injured. His leg is hurt. Ana brings him food, clothing, her father's pocket watch. But the deserter is found by the authorities and shot. The pocket watch of Ana's father is found with the body. Ana runs away when her father scolds her. She does not come back home that night.
The Castilian village now mirrors the village in the movie. The villagers by torchlight look for the lost child. That night by a local river Ana sees her reflection in the water. But when she looks again it is the monster's reflection she sees. Frankenstein stands behind her as she crouches to look at the river. She turns her head, looks up, sees him. She is tense but does not scream. He kneels down and touches her, just as Frankenstein did with the little girl in the movie.
She is found the next day. She is not dead and wet. She is asleep in a field. She is brought home and put to bed. The doctor says she must rest some days. She is traumatized by something she has seen. It will take her some time to recover.
Ana seems to, but in the end she stands at an open window at night in her house, and into the darkness she says, "It's me. This is Ana." Isabel had told her the spirits would appear if she called out to them with her name. Ana remembers.
A film this dreamy and enigmatic will have many readings and interpretations. Here are three. First, the world of dream is real for children. Second, the adult world has love, deception and anguish in it. Third, monsters may be political. A monster stalks the land and they call him Frankenstein but he may be Franco. He strikes fear into the hearts of his countrymen. He's a traitor to the spirit of Spain, a defiler of decency.
Frankensteins walk among us still. We see them daily in our media. They use violence to get their way. They murder innocents, including children. They even kill girls for wanting to go to school. Adults who cannot love and protect children are failed human beings. That so many of them should exist is one of the moral crises of our age.