The Spirit Of The Beehive (Criterion Collection) Review
In 1940, just after the Spanish Civil War, a travelling cinema comes to the small town of Hoyuelos in central Spain and sets up their show in the town’s makeshift cinema. The film they show James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the image of the creature has a profound effect on two of the young girls present, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería).
There is very little else you can say to describe Victor Erice’s slow moving and allegorical film in terms of plot or narrative, since little else happens as the girls explore the countryside around them looking for signs of the monster’s presence in their world, but every scene in the film nonetheless carries a tremendous sense of significance that is scarcely tangible or describable. Everything the girls do or experience in the film is either tainted or enriched by their viewing of the film Frankenstein. The experience lead the girls to consider the world not just in terms of the physical world they see around them but - having come to a realisation of their own being, existence and mortality - also in terms of the spiritual and the unknown. A teacher shows them the various parts that make up a human being, but the girls intuitively know from their viewing of Frankenstein that there is more to being human than just the composite parts of the body. They also know that the motivations that people act on, like the monster, can be unfathomable.
The film uses every possible technique to describe this awakening of the girls to the world around them which, since it is something that cannot be put into words, least of all by the young girls themselves. Erice uses images, sounds and textures to represent the conflicting emotions that have been set in motion in the minds of the young girls, evoking and mixing both physical and metaphysical concepts. The magnificent cinematography captures the vast plains and far-off horizons of Castille, not as something fixed and picturesque, but as something constantly in flux, changing under the flowing shadows of clouds, weathered, beaten and war-torn. The girls’ realisation of their own mortality is represented to some extent in the railway track that divides the land and the dark deadly train that races across it. Even looking through an old photo album holds intangible shadows of the people their mother and father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) and mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) once were and now no longer are.
On these terms alone, as a poetic exploration of the spark of self-awareness that opens up the intangible and vast mysteries of existence and mortality, The Spirit Of The Beehive is a masterful work. With its 1940 setting in the years immediately after the Spanish Civil War however, the film can also be seen as being highly representative of the circumstances of the Spanish people, and necessarily allegorical since the film was made while Franco was still in power in 1973 and subject to censorship. Certainly, there is a sense of the girls’ experience being representative of the post-war experience of many Spanish people, a loss of innocence that leads them to consider the world around them in different terms, as a place of potential danger - or more pertinently as “a time of silence and lies”, as it is described in the documentary Footprints of a Spirit, included on this DVD set. In this closed-off world, the girls’ mother Teresa writes letters to a soldier outside, while their father is wrapped up in an internalised world of beekeeping and poetry. For the girls, the horror of this incomprehensible world can be seen in the monster or spectre of the war that Ana finds hiding in one of the sheds. The land that was once capable of bear life-sustaining produce, now looks arid and barren. And as the girls’ father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) shows them through poisonous mushrooms found in the nearby woods, the land also has the potential to bring about death.
Erice’s technique, which can be compared to the films of Tarkovsky, cannot however be reduced to straightforward conventional symbolism and association. Seeing the monster Frankenstein for example as a representation of Franco is too obvious and reductive and to try to tie the film down to such a simple reading is counterproductive to exploring the other images presented. There are many more elements and suggestions that defy easy categorisation since the impressions they give rise to will be different for every viewer, not least the one which gives the film its title – the central metaphor of the beehives kept by Fernando, the purposeful activity of the bees a fascination not only for Ana, but to Fernando himself who writes about them in his poetry. The imagery of the beehive as a representation of industry and society - one closed off and boxed in - is mirrored in the family’s house, where they are often seen in the warm honey glows of the sun spilling through the hexagonal frames of a yellow window. As an aside, I don’t know if it has any relevance, but it is interesting to consider the film’s Spanish title ‘El Espíritu de La Colmena’ and wonder whether there is any reference or counterpoint to Camilo José Cela’s 1951 realist novel of Madrid post-war society ‘La Colmena’ (The Beehive), later filmed in 1982. But this is just one of the many inexhaustible associations that can be made in Erice’s film which itself demonstrates, in much the same way that James Whales’ film does for the young girls, the power of cinema to reach out and touch the senses in a way that no other artform can achieve.
The Spirit Of The Beehive is released as a 2-disc set in the United States as part of the Criterion Collection. The DVD is in NTSC format and is encoded for Region 1.
Criterion present Spirit Of The Beehive anamorphically in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Information in the accompanying booklet testifies to the amount of restoration and colour correction that went into this transfer and the results are suitably impressive. Colours are warm if slightly yellowish, emphasising the dun earth tones prevalent in the film and the honey-coloured light that is clearly intentional. Any marks that remain on the print are small and scarcely perceptible. The image is clear and sharp and barring one or two minor shaky episodes, the image is extremely stable as far as telecine transfer and lack of compression artefacts. There is however some minor flicker in brightness levels, but this is handled as well as possible in the transfer. The image shows excellent detail, with reasonably good blacks and shadow detail, though this tends to flatten out slightly in difficult low-lit interiors and in the dark woods at the end of the film, all of which look quite murky. There is also a slight amount of edge enhancement applied to the transfer.
Thankfully - although inconsistently since widescreen films are just as subject to overscan as Academy ratio films - Criterion haven’t applied their policy of window-boxing to this release, perhaps because of the existing black bars required to present an anamorphic 1.66:1 image.
The audio track is clear and free of any background noise or hiss. There is a slight hint of crackle and sibilance on voices, with the overall tone is lacking in the low-end frequencies, but dialogue is clear and the smallest of sounds – so essential to the impact of the film – are clearly audible.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font of an appropriate size, and the translation appears to be quite accurate.
The Footprints Of A Spirit (48:24)
Made in 1998 for Spanish television, this is an exemplary documentary that covers every aspect of the film. Going back to Hoyuelos, interviewing the director, the screenwriter, the producer and actress Ana Torrent, cleverly blending in modern-day shots of the locations with scenes from the film, the documentary covers the historical background of The Spirit Of The Beehive, how expression was made in other Spanish cinema during the Franco years, as well as the film’s inspirations and its legacy. Simply superb.
Victor Erice in Madrid (48:25)
In a 2000 interview with the director by filmmaker Hideyuki Miyaoka, Erice talks around The Spirit Of The Beehive, on the various themes and ideas it gives rise to, but is somewhat hesitant to put into words things that can only be expressed in the way the film does so. On a wider level he discusses the nature of cinema, East vs West, Ford and Mizoguchi, documentary and fiction classic and contemporary. Quite fascinating.
Interviews with Fernando Fernán Gómez (11:19)
The veteran actor recalls not understanding anything about the film or his character during the making of the film, and claims he still doesn’t fully understand it, but seems to have a handle on it nonetheless and speaks well about the roles of director and actor in a film of this kind.
Interview with Linda C. Ehrlich (16:27)
Erice expert Ehrlich gives some background information on the characters, the cultural references in the film and gathers critical response towards it, seeking to provide some kind of explanation to scenes, references and symbols used in the film.
The Booklet contains an essay by Paul Julian Smith, which also provides a fine overview of the film and what it deals with. This and all the extra features in the set have been well judged – thankfully not attempting to provide a full commentary for a film that should not be tied down or over-analysed. The extras do a fine job of providing enough ideas and background for the viewer to consider and make up their own minds about the film – which is what the best extra features should do.
The Spirit Of The Beehive can be a difficult film on first viewing, since its qualities are not immediately obvious, but it rewards repeated viewing and consideration of the impressions it has made on the individual viewer. Reviewing the film is consequently quite difficult, since any attempt to neatly tie-up all the imagery, mood and situations into a simple allegorical reading will only diminish the effectiveness and infinite readings of a film that needs to be experienced, not understood. There is less difficulty in judging the quality of Criterion’s 2-disc DVD release, which presents the film in a condition where those essential elements of light, colour, texture and sound that are so much more essential than any narrative function can best be appreciated.