Monday Movie: The Spirit of the Beehive, by David Bax
“Why did he kill the girl, and why did they kill him after that?” This question, asked by a seven year old girl who’s just seen James Whale’s Frankenstein in Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive, is one of my favorite movie lines of all time. The first part is exactly the sort of question we might, patronizingly, expect a child to ask about Frankenstein’s monster. Why he kills the girl is too darkly complex for a young mind to comprehend, we might tell ourselves. But it’s the second part that gets me. Why the villagers go on to kill the monster ought to be self-evident. Even a child understands terror and vengeance, right? But, through young Ana (Ana Torrent), Erice and co-screenwriter Angel Fernandez Santos dare to suggest an almost awe-inspiring innate human innocence. Maybe what we consider our basest, most primal instincts are actually learned behaviors. But who, then, is teaching them?
The Spirit of the Beehive was made near the end of Francisco Franco’s rule over Spain but it’s set in 1940, almost immediately after the Spanish Civil War that resulted in Franco’s ascension to dictatorship. Ana lives in a tiny town with her parents (Fernando Fernan Gomez and Teresa Gimpera) and her older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria). After Frankenstein plays in town, Ana becomes obsessed and Isabel, the prankster, tells her that the monster is, in fact, not dead but living in a nearby barn and will make himself visible to anyone who befriends him. What Isabel doesn’t know is that a young soldier, a deserter from Franco’s army, actually is residing in the barn. Films weren’t allowed to be critical of the government at the time so The Spirit of the Beehive is dripping with metaphor. Most of it is likely lost on me, given my vantage point and life experience. But the oppressive blanket of sadness that’s draped over the whole movie is a pretty glaring clue as to how Erice feels about Franco’s reign.
Yet there’s a dark hope to Ana’s naivete, even as it puts her life in danger. The Spirit of the Beehive is a kind of celebration of a child’s ability to blend reality and fantasy. It’s as beautiful as it is terrifying. Almost twenty years later, director Philip Ridley would tread some of the same ground, but this time on American soil, with his underrated The Reflecting Skin, a connection I made in reverse order because that’s how I came upon the films. Someday, the latter ought to be the focus of its own Monday Movie column. But seek them both out and ask yourself about belief, killing and the why of it all.