The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

“Have you never wanted to do anything that was dangerous? Where should we be if no one tried to find out what lies beyond? Have your never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud? And what changes the darkness into light? But if you talk like that, people call you crazy. Well, if I could discover just one of these things, what eternity is, for example, I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”
                                 -Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), “Frankenstein”

Clearly ol’ Dr. Frankenstein wanted to discover those secrets of life, in essence play god, and as a result he created a dangerous monster and is clearly portrayed as crazy.  So goes the relatively clear-cut message of the classic 1931 film, that man has no business playing god, but then again, who asked the monster what he thought about it all?  As crazy as the movie makes Henry Frankenstein seem, there are points where the creature, as dangerous as he is, represents the purest of child-like innocence: essentially himself a lonely child whose violence comes from simple confusion.  Consider one of my favorite movie scenes of all-time, the famous one where the monster finds the friendly little girl in the countryside and the two toss lilies into the water.  The monster’s look of sheer joy and enjoyment as he tosses the lilies is incredibly touching in his child-like innocence that he’s finally found a friend, to the point that we can almost forgive him for next drowning the little girl…he was just confused, after all, and took the next logical step once he ran out of lilies.  From my point of view, the monster, even despite the body count he piles up, is one of the main victims in the film: a child not responsible for his own action, created through unnatural means through which he had no say.

Now consider Ana and to a lesser extent her sister Isabel, the two children in the 1940s Spain of “The Spirit of the Beehive” who see “Frankenstein” and that one touching scene between the monster and little Maria, and Ana is enraptured: perhaps by the monster’s child-like humanity, perhaps by little Maria’s kindness where all others have shown the monster nothing but fear and scorn.  For one thing, Ana is just as much an innocent child as the creature, though after seeing that scene and wanting to hunt down the creature wishes to discover the meaning of existence and why life is the way it is, just like Frankenstein himself did.  Ana and Isabel live in a rather large mansion, surrounded by grand landscapes on the countryside, and yet they are stifled by the banality of everyday life, their distant parents, and monotony.  They attempt to escape this monotony through imagination as Frankenstein attempted to transcend through science…I only wish that Victor Erice didn’t make that monotony of these childrens’ lives so apparent for so much of this movie.  He certainly gets the point across that the lives of Ana and Isabel and her parents are empty and need to be expanded, but with the entire movie pointing out that monotony to you like crazy, I wonder just how successful that could be as a film-going experience.

I’d say it’s a pretty big problem when I find a 90 minute movie to feel at least 20-30 minutes too long, which is why my biggest problem with “The Spirit of the Beehive” by far was its pacing.  All throughout, there are scenes and little moments that simply linger too long…the wife simply laying forlorn while we hear her distant husband’s footsteps, for example, seemed to stretch on for eternity.  Sure, of course it gets the point across that this marriage is essentially empty and these two have nothing to do with each other, but for god’s sake, at least 1-2 minutes of seeing and hearing that same exact thing just doesn’t translate to the screen, I’m sorry, especially for someone as dead-tired as I was 😛 .  Scenes with the two sisters were much the same way: playing and exploring in such a quiet and monotonous way that it really gets to the crux of how empty their lives are, to the point that their pretty big house or a grand landscape like in the screenshot I posted doesn’t seem huge, but imprisoning.  Again, I completely understand what Erice is going for in portraying the monotony of such a life and Ana doing anything to break from that, and he succeeds with that, but I can’t bring myself to get drawn into something like that.  My life is monotonous enough, I don’t need to see something just like it in a piece of fiction on-screen 😛 .  It isn’t until Ana meets a certain outlaw at the shack where she believes the Frankenstein monster to live where we finally get the feeling that she’s learning to transcend her existence and actually take an initiative, but sad to say by that point I lost most interest, and this movie’s welcome turn into the surreal and Ana’s inward odyssey was too little, too late.

The comparison I’ve heard a few times in regards to “The Spirit of the Beehive” is to Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” but I don’t buy it.  “Days of Heaven” is a masterpiece because we see relatively commonplace goings-on (if you call love triangles, stabbings and scheming for money commonplace) from the point of view of a child, so that the landscape is appropriately huge and grand and the feeling of distance from the adult characters is appropriate.  I think “The Spirit of the Beehive” is different because I didn’t get the feeling of grandeur placed on every locales and situations from a child’s point of view.  Whether we were seeing scenes from the points of view of the distant parents or the children, everything we were seeing seemed imposing and emotionally empty no matter what.  Because of that, I’d more easily compare this to a movie like “L’Avventura”: another movie portraying the monotony of adult life, and another movie I didn’t like.  Even in that case, I completely understood the intention of making the movie as monotonous as those peoples’ lives to prove a point, and to that effect it was a very well-made film…just not one I could identify with in any way.  “The Spirit of the Beehive” is just like that, except even more uneven I think.  Are we supposed to see things completely from the kids’ point of view, or should we identify at least a little with the parents when we see them drifting through their empty lives, unwilling or unable to comfort one another?  I had no idea, so I thought the narrative (or what little narrative there was with so may stretches of no dialogue and pretty much nothing happening for that matter) was a bit of a mess.  Obviously the theme of the beehive works: Ana, Isabel, and their parents all exist in their own little worlds, their own little cells within the Beehive and therefore can’t understand one another unless they work to understand one another, and the way Erice goes about portraying that works to suggest the monotony of existing in separate cells like that, and for that reason “The Spirit of the Beehive” is indeed well-made.  But for me at least, constant monotony does not a great and absorbing movie make.  Frankenstein’s monster was a pitch-perfect portrayal of child-like innocence transposed to a hideous creature, trying to find friendship and meaning in a world that has rejected him.  Ana, I think, is supposed to be similar in having an innocent worldview and trying to rise above it, but I thought she seemed too world-weary and introspective for her years: a figure too distant in a world I felt was portrayed on film excellently, but I felt just as distant from.

7/10

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