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The Duke On “Spirit Of The Beehive”

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Haunting, mesmerising, unforgettable, beautiful… All these adjectives and many more have been flung at The Duke in his time. But whilst The Duke may fit the criteria required should one wish to be paid any such compliments, it would be fair to say that Victor Erice’s 1973 Spirit Of The Beehive, or El Espíritu de la colmena, does a reasonable job of fulfilling at least two and a half of them.

What The Beehive Film concerns itself with, is being about “the childhood” and “the humanity” and so on and so forth. Other weighty issues concerning the “existence”. Don’t worry though, if you think maybe it’ll be difficult for to keep up with all the necessary pondering, since Erice has the decency to ensure that nothing of much importance occurs for at least three quarters of the running time, meaning you could feasibly have reached any number of profound realizations by the time you need to read another subtitle.

What happened, was that whilst General Franco was scowling about the place and generally being, in the fabled words of Shakespeare, “A right motherfucker”, his countryman Erice was making a film about two young children go to see Frankenstein in a little cinema during 1940. For one of the children in particular, a lass by the name of Ana, the film has a profound effect, and following conversations about said cinematic wonder with her sister, she comes to believe that the spirit of Boris Karlof’s lurching creation lives in an abandoned bungalow outside the village.

The Beehive Film is, at its core, a meditative, hypnotic, eyes-of-a-child type deal, allowing the viewer to observe the world with the kind of awe and reverence that folks tend to forget about once things like mortgages and pubic hair come into the equation.

This sense of childlike innocence is applied also to our understanding of the adult characters, in that we know very little about them. The father and mother rarely communicate with one another, the latter preferring to post letters to some mystery individual, and the former tending his glass beehive. We sense there might be some other shenanigans going on, but we’re not old enough to be burdened with such unnecessary information.

All we need to be concerned with is playing around the abandoned house, and looking down a well, and then some stuff about mushrooms.

You might think, since the film has Spirit in the title, that no good can come from playing around a well, and that most likely there was a psychic lass flung down it a few years ago and next thing anyone knows there’s gonna be a cursed video tape doing the rounds and then freaky motherfuckers are gonna start crawling out the damn telly.

Don’t be ridiculous, friends. I mean this was 1973, which was, I believe, at least three decades before video cassettes were even invented.

No one was flung down this well, but that’s not to suggest there aren’t atrocities going on.

The film is concerned with the Spanish Civil War, and the effects of such upon ordinary, everyday folks, like the kinda people The Arrested Developments used to sing about.

About an hour into the proceedings, a soldier shows up, and goes into hiding in the abandoned bungalow. Ana meets him, and gives him an apple and what not, but for reasons neither we, nor Ana, can comprehend, he is killed.

Nowadays, we’d probably get mournful orchestral carry-ons and slow-motion shots of him getting riddled with bullets, and then we see the kid looking on, and maybe a poem or something that he’s been writing falls out of his trembling, bloodied fist.

The Beehive Film has no truck with that kinda shit though. We just see a few shots in the dark, and follow Ana as she finds bloodstained rocks and walls where her new friend should be.

It’s at least 98% more moving than, say, the bit in Platoon where the fella gets killed for to go on the posters, with the arms out and so on.

War is hell, motherfucker.

There’s no reason at all why a man shouldn’t admire the hell of The Beehive Film, but there are sundry reasons why one might find it lacking in the “adrenaline” and so on.

For example, anyone allergic to an allegory or two had best avoid these 93 minutes of shots of mushrooms, bees crawling about in prosthetic dwellings, children staring inquisitively towards a village shrouded in darkness.

Similarly, if long takes are something you’d rather see less of in cinema, then The Beehive Film may well send you over the edge into some kind of enraged psychosis. If you found yourself watching Weekend by John Luc Goddard and screaming “Cut! Cut you motherfucker!” every couple a seconds during that opening ten minute take, then you should know that Erice, unlike Goddard, doesn’t even want to have a car-crash at the end of it all, like a reward for your patience. All he’s gonna do is maybe show you a cat getting mishandled by a youngster.

But what the hell did you hire out a film about a beehive for anyway? Unless it’s been made by Pixar, you can be sure a film about insects isn’t going to be all that action-packed.

Notable exception – The Swarm, another classic bee film, but one about how the motherfuckers kill Michael Caine’s acquaintances, and less concerned with the psychoanalytical and what have you.

Erice doesn’t offer many answers, but then he doesn’t really ask many questions, either. There are things to be considered, but it’s more like a kind of filmic version of that word association game what psychiatrists are so fond of.

Childhood. Innocence. War.

Just think about those things for a while is all you’re being asked to do, and while you’re at it, here’s some nice pictures of mushrooms or a field or two.

The influence of Spirit Of The Beehive can be seen in films like Cinema Paradiso, another flick about how cinema is great and also kids are awful cute, and even Etre Et Avoir, what also concerned itself with the children in rural settings getting all educated. I’m guessing Nicholas Roeg may have seen it a couple times, too.

Even The Blair Witch Project owes something to The Beehive Film, in that a supernatural entity is explicitly referenced in the title, and yet the motherfucker never makes an appearance.

Maybe there’s a sequel – Spirit Of The Beehive Book Of The Shadows or some shit, where a buncha folks go check out this village for to investigate the claims about evil bees and then get drunk and then they check back the footage and find ghostly insects floating about the place.

Who knows what kooky shit could ensue?

“Mesmeric” is probably the most fitting description of Spirit Of The Beehive. You may twitch a little during the first ten minutes, maybe think about lifting that copy of Ninja Scroll off the shelf instead, but before you know it you’re drawn into this beautifully simple, evocative and atmospheric landscape.

It’s a bit like those relaxation exercises some folks like to do of an evening. You feel a bit weird at first, wondering when something’s gonna happen, and then next thing you know, you’re legs are all heavy and warm, and you’re all the content in the world, peacefully allowing yourself to disconnect and engage with something eerily tranquil yet oddly comforting.

Or at least that’s what some folks might feel. A stone cold son of a bitch like The Duke is too busy feeling masculine for to worry about shit like that.

Like Porkys 2 – The Next Day, Erice disguises some fairly heated political context by presenting to us seemingly inconsequential, everyday activities. He has criticisms he wants to make about the fascist régime he was working under, yet understandably stops short of scrawling “Franco You Bastard” across the screen.

The overall success of the undertaking owes a lot to the subtle brilliance of the two central child actresses. Ana Torrent is magnificent, so magnificent in fact that she ended up starring in Alejando Amenabar’s Tesis. Isabel Telleria is equally good as her slightly-older sister, but for some reason she never made another film.

It’s not the only Spanish beehive film, with Mario Camus’ 1982 The Beehive, or La Colmena, also being worth a gander, but it is certainly one of the most unique films a fella could ask to spend an evening with.

Erice has only made a handful of films in his life, preferring, like Terence Malick, to take a decade or so off in-between carving understated, poetic meditations. Thank God though that when he finally gets around to it, he ensures that the sabbaticals are well-earned.

Thanks folks.

The Duke resides at Mondo Irlando.

Sling An Email At The Duke, Like David, Except With Words Instead Of Rocks

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  • Chris Kent

    Rather than a sequel to Spirit of the Beehive, I say a sequel to The Swarm is in order – only one of the greatest bee films in history. What other bee epic can boast Richard Widmark firing a flame thrower from the hip?

    People ask, “What were Katherine Ross’ three greatest films?” I answer, in all confidence, “The Swarm, The Swarm, The Swarm!”