Film: El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.
The idea of a film within a film is hardly a new one. Shakespeare wrote plays within plays after all, so a film inside another film is merely an extension of that idea to a new medium. In El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), the film within the film is of central importance. It, more than anything, drives the entire story.
The film takes place in a small Castilian village in or around 1940, just after the end of the Spanish Revolution, a theme that seems to be taking up a lot of my film time these last few days. A film arrives in town as entertainment for the people. As it happens, the film is James Whale’s classic Frankenstein.
Elsewhere, we see a beekeeper (Fernando, played by Fernando Fernan Gomez) tending to his combs. A woman (Teresa, played by Teresa Gimpera) writes a letter to a long-lost lover and sends it off by train with the hopes of it reaching him, an event she claims she is not sure will happen. We don’t discover until the man walks home that the beekeeper and the letter writer are a married couple.
The couple have two daughters: seven-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria). Ana is deeply affected by the film. What troubles her most is the fact that the monster kills a little girl in the film, and is then later killed by the townspeople. Isabel tells her that it’s really just a trick of the movies. Additionally, she claims that she has seen the monster in the building of a nearby farm.
Unknown to the two girls, a Loyalist soldier (Juan Margallo) in hiding from the victorious armies of Franco, has chosen this barn to hide in. When Ana discovers him, he becomes Frankenstein’s monster for her, a figure both of fear and of fascination, and this leads her to retreat further and further into her own fantasy world.
Images of the beehive in the title appear everywhere. The windows in the family’s house as well as the metals screens for the oil lamps, for instance, are decorated with a honeycomb pattern. More importantly, the family is frequently shown in separate rooms, each in his or her own cell as it were, a little individual worker bee with no contact from the others.
The pace of the film can only be described as laconic. The camera holds still for long shots without moving, showing little, but implying much. In an early scene, for instance, we see Teresa as she is waking up. Her husband is moving around in the room, and we see only his shadow on the wall while Teresa feigns sleep. Later, when the girls go to the barn for the first time, Isabel runs off while Ana stands in the barren field, paralyzed until Isabel returns.
In fact, it’s not until more than halfway through the film that we meet the man who will become the monster of Ana’s internal world. Much up to this point is setting up the family relationships and their intricate and complicated, but simple lives. Essentially, this again mimics the beehive where the bees do the same job over an over, a truly repetitive task, and yet each bee does its own part.
Ana is aggressively cute, the kind of cute that hurts. As the father of a seven-year-old myself, it’s not possible for me to say that she’s the cutest kid I’ve ever seen, but she’s certainly the cutest one I’ve seen in a movie. It is a cliché to say that this fact makes her sympathetic, but it is true. The kid is so intensely likeable that, as a viewer, I wanted things to work out well for her. She wants to meet the monster, and so I want her to as well, if only for her own sake. I want her to get what she wants. I want her to be happy.
And yet, while watching, I very much got the impression early on that she might not. Ana is the kind of movie character for whom the world is both a magical and cruel place. While younger than Ofelia in El Laberinto de Fauno, the two characters bear striking similarities to my mind—both young, innocent, and fixated on an interior world. I have little doubt that Guillermo del Toro was strongly influenced by this film in making his own Spanish Revolution films, part of that showing up in the continual use of warm tones throughout the film—amber of a color associated with honey is prevalent, and is a color del Toro likes as well.
El Espiritu de la Colmena has been called the greatest Spanish language film of the 1970s, and I don’t disagree. It is beautiful and special in a way few films can match, a beauty that is greatly enhanced by its minimalist soundtrack. If you have ever been that person who shies away from the group, or who finds solace in introversion, you will identify immediately with Ana, and this identification will go on for days, perhaps indefinitely. Strange, powerful, and sweet, like the product of any beehive worthy of the name.
Why to watch El Espiritu de la Colmena: A demonstration of the value of imagination.
Why not to watch: Slow pacing might turn off the more fidgety minded viewer.