MOVIE: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Have you ever seen a movie that was so amazingly put together — so thought-out, so intentional, so beautiful — that when it was over, you started to think everything you are doing with your entire life is a complete waste of time?  I had that experience about four times this past weekend, and this is the movie that started it all off (the other three were Orson Welles movies, but I’ll get to that in my next post).

This Spanish film is absolutely — argh.  I was completely stunned by it.  It’s so quiet and simple, so planned, so thoughtful, and sometimes so intensely moving I could barely stand watching.  Ana Torrent, who plays the main character (a six year-old girl also named Ana), is breathtakingly adept at using her face to express emotions and there were times in this movie when a simple look from her completely broke my heart.  The minute I finished watching it, I immediately restarted it so I could watch it again.  And I would’ve gone for a third round too if I hadn’t decided that was just too ridiculous even for me.

The story is, on the surface, fairly simple.  It’s set in a small Spanish village in 1940, right after the end of the Spanish Civil War.  The main character is the aforementioned Ana, who lives in an enormous, echoingly-empty house with her older sister Isabel, her father (a beekeeper and inventor/philosopher), and her mother (painfully distracted a good portion of the time by the agony of being separated from her lover by the war).

As the film opens, the 1931 film Frankenstein has just come to town and Ana and her sister both go see it.  Instead of being terrified by the story, in particular the famous scene in which the monster kills the little girl, Ana seems enthralled by it.  She asks her sister over and over why the monster killed the little girl and why he was then killed by the villagers.  Why, why?  Her sister eventually tells her the monster ISN’T dead.  That he’s a spirit who lives in an empty — what was that, a farmhouse? — in the middle of a big field outside their village.  Isabel tells Ana he’ll take human form if she calls to him, and Ana, enraptured by this idea, begins to go to the farmhouse each day, calling out to him, “Yo soy Ana, Yo soy Ana,” to try to bring him out.

At the same time, a Republican soldier on the lam from the victorious Francoists leaps off a train and injures his leg.  He manages to make his way to that farmhouse, where he holes up for a few days.  Of course, Ana finds him there and immediately assumes he’s the monster in human form.  Unafraid, she begins to take care of him, bringing him food and clothes.  A few days later, however, the Francoists find and kill him, leaving behind only a trace of bullets and blood for Ana to find.

What happens next is hard to explain — intentionally so, I think — and is open to vast amounts of interpretation.  And I loved that about it.  Because what happens next is essentially rooted in Ana’s own confusion about life, human nature, war, death, and monsters, and her confusion translates directly into OUR confusion in a way that somehow manages to be more profound than frustrating.  But it wasn’t even really the story of this film that so pulled me in.  It was the visuals and the quietness.  It’s been a long time since I saw a movie that was this QUIET — I don’t even know exactly what I mean by that, because I don’t think I’m specifically talking about sound.  That said, the sounds in this film are also completely mesmerizing.  There’s almost no music — instead what we get is the gentle hum of bees and the constant low-level whoosh of wind rushing over an open field.  The sounds of the world.

In a lot of ways, this movie reminded me of the Swedish film Let the Right One In, another movie about thoughtful children that moves deliberately and takes even the smallest of details seriously.   There’s a scene in Beehive when Ana comes into her bedroom to find someone (I won’t say who) lying dead on the floor.  What she does when she discovers the body — the way she talks to it, moves its arms, the way she hesitates, the look on her face — it was just so CORRECT.  So exactly what a six year-old would do.  So heartbreakingly spot-on.  How does a six year-old actress have the self-awareness it would take to be able to make those expressions and halt in those hesitations so correctly?   I had the same reaction to Kåre Hedebrant in Let the Right One In — you can’t pull those kinds of physical expressions off without a masterful grasp on the ramifications of human emotion.  How do they do it, these little, little kids?   I don’t have that kind of grasp now and I’ve lived six or seven times as long as they have.   I just — I was floored.

The look of this film is also stunning:   the lighting in the house that highlights its miserable emptiness, the broad shots of the vastness of the field surrounding the farmhouse, the look into the well as Ana drops a rock down it, the shots of outsides of buildings with handwritten signs and war-torn crumbles, the flush of heat on the face of Ana’s mother as she sits in front of a fire and systematically burns all the letters to (from?) her lost lover (which reminds me, oh argh, argh, Ana’s mother’s agony, it just so dug its way right into me).  Then there are all the metaphors —  the beehive-like aspect of  both Ana’s house and the entire village, everyone’s emotions so subdued by the smoke of war.  Ana’s ultimate buzzing  flight.  And the whole concept of what makes a monster, a challenging question at any time (a little To Kill a Mockingbird here, I’d say), but certainly twice as complicated in the aftermath of a war.

I think of myself as a creative person at times.  I like to write.  I play music.  Sometimes I even do stuff like paint or take photographs.   But when I see art like this, it never fails to put me in my place.  I think, yes, I am leaving things behind that are meaningful and have a place.  And then I see something like this and no.  No, I am not.  If I make something in my lifetime that is even a tenth as beautiful as this film, maybe then I will be able to say I made a mark.

Don’t hold your breath.

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Genre:  Foreign, Drama
Cast:  Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera

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6 Responses to “MOVIE: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)”

  1. alisaj29 Says:

    I don’t remember what your review was of Pan’s Labyrinth, and I realize the only similarity from Pan’s to this movie, is that they are both in Spanish, BUT I really feel the same away about Pan’s as you do this movie.

  2. megwood Says:

    ADORED Pan’s Labyrinth. Overall, I would say every Spanish film I’ve ever seen has been pretty mind-blowing in one way or another, but I recognize that that is partly because they are just so different from American films, and so even when they aren’t brilliant, they SEEM brilliant simply by nature of being novel. It’s also partly because I’m primarily exposed to Spanish movies that have been recommended to me, I would guess — unlike American movies, where sometimes I’ll just go see whatever is playing at 4:30 because that works best with my schedule, right? But really, Spain seems to consistently make great fantasy films, great psychological thrillers, etc. Just a different way of looking at the world, and it’s fascinating to see.

    My write-up on Eduardo Noriega has a bunch of great recommendations for Spanish thrillers, by the way. One of them, a movie called Tesis (Thesis), actually stars Ana Torrent, the little girl in this movie, all grown up! Beautiful now, beautiful then. I also am a huge fan of Noriega’s ghostly The Devil’s Backbone, which was made by the same dude who made Pan’s (Guillermo del Toro).

  3. alisa Says:

    I’ve added the Thesis and Devil’s Backbone to my list, BUT I’ve also added Volver. I LOVE that movie. 🙂

  4. Liz Says:

    Meg, I think that’s quite a compliment from “7tavern.” I checked out their web site, and it looks pretty interesting. Most of the names of the “Founders” sound Asian, but I can’t tell about the reviewers they already have. They do seem to be both dedicated and supportive. I’m not sure if it would entail extra work for you. It might just mean writing the reviews you do for this blog, and then sending them copies. At any rate, I’m proud of you!

  5. megwood Says:

    Oh, no, Lizzie, dear, I was actually just about to delete that post. Total baloney. They’ve contacted me before under various guises. But thanks, hon!

  6. Gerry Lynch Says:

    I completely agree – I just watched it for the first time recently and reacted in the same way as you did. It is touching and pure and just right in very way. A small miracle for which I am grateful.

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