Monday, October 20, 2014

Espiritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973)

Reprinting this because--well, there's no reason not to read about Victor Erice either.

The greatest Spanish film ever made?

First saw Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmen (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) maybe seven or so years ago, on a poor video projection with a standing crowd in the way, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't moved--which was a pity; in a thirty-three year career, Erice has made only one film a decade, starting with this one (he makes Terence Malick look prolific). Saw it again in TCM recently (I just caught it by accident) and it's just tremendous--he plays with the metaphor of the Frankenstein creature, transforming Shelley's myth of hubris and failed responsibility into one of the lonely outsider (which is more in line with Whale's vision, and with what kids readily respond to). Over that is the metaphor of the beehive, which Erice has Fernando Feran Gomez looking at repeatedly like a god observing his subjects under glass. And over that is the developing consciousness of the children, which sees all through enchanted eyes, transforming the Spanish countryside into a fantastic dreamscape.

It draws from disparate sources: Spanish political history, Grimm fairy tales, Mary Shelly's novel, and I would say Swift in Gulliver mode (the creature is to the girls as the girls--or the father--is to the bees; perception shaped or modified by perspective), and I suspect Rene Clement's Forbidden Games. In turn, it has probably influenced films like Cinema Paradiso (a coarser, more sentimental treatise on the power of the cinema to fascinate the youth), My Neighbor Totoro (two girls exploring a lovely countryside, and encountering a mysterious figure (both have their threads of pathos, which the creators take in different directions)), much of present-day Iranian cinema (especially those that deal with children) and even The Shining (dysfunctional family in a large habitat; plus a shot of Ana at the typewriter, hearing a strange noise, moving away (along with the camera) from the typewriter into a series of doorways, to glimpse something terrifying behind a closed door). 

 Incredible complexity, and yet it comes across as hushed, simple, moving: you choose to see the connections if you so wish, but it works supremely well as the story of a young girl who wishes to make a friend and finds one, with all the attendant consequences.

Some notes: Erice rhymes and repeats images, sounds, textures, emotions. The day after the children watch Frankenstein, a schoolteacher unveils the figure of a man without internal organs; her lesson consisted of the kids putting the correct organs in place, a schoolroom parody of Dr. Frankenstein's work method. The sequence ends with Ana putting in the crucial component--the eyes--with which the figure, previously a collection of colored cardbored cutouts, suddenly acquires life and expression and perhaps even a soul. Ana looks on her creation with an ambigiuous expression: just what is she feeling? Longing? Fear? Pride? A masterful example of child acting. The mother writes to a French lover, posts the letter at a drop box by a train's side, spots a handsome young man seated in a cabin. When her husband prepares for bed, the camera remains focused on the mother's face as she pretends to sleep, the father heard clomping around much as Frankenstein's creature does; when he finally climbs into bed, we hear a train whistle, and we're almost certain we know what--or who--she's thinking about.

Erice creates incredible imagery (with the help of the great Luis Cuadrado, who started to go blind during this production, and took his life in 1980). There's one that stays with me, even if it has little other significance: the father comes out of the house, the day just dawning, the the windows still lit, the house beautifully framed in the strengthening light; we follow him as he crosses down the path to the fields beyond and suddenly it's another composition, this time of the sun breaking over the horizon, the camera moving slowly past some tree branches to get a better view.

I read a college website that considers Ana a representation of the innocent Republicans, the older Isabel a representation of the corrupt, materialistic Nationalists. Possible, but I can't help but recoil from such bald symbolism. Isabel tells lies and teases Ana, but they both seem equally innocent, equally caught up in their childhood world (Isabel just seems more capable of using it to her own ends). One startling image of her developing beyond childhood is a scene of her with the cat. She strokes it lovingly, then in a fit of childish pique or excess affection, squeezes it; it hisses and bites her finger. She goes to the mirror and, looking at her face, spreads the blood across her lips. Remarkable image of oncoming sexuality, with the blood on her lips forshadowing the blood that will come forth another time (it's her only film role, incidentally)

This is considered by some the greatest film ever to come out of Spain. I don't know if I disagree; at the very least, I think I understand where such people are coming from.


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