The Spirit Of The Beehive (El Espiritu de la colmena, 1973) is a film that you either love or don't understand, or both. It's a work that's difficult to hate, and will definitely have an effect on anyone who's seen it, to whatever degree.
When I first saw it, I was a little confounded, but when taken mostly in the context of the political situation that hangs over it like funereal pall, then it makes much more sense. Perhaps that's why most reviews use only that as a point of reference. Upon closer scrutiny, of course the film is much, much more.
The first thing that struck me on the first viewing was how it's the film Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth wants to be. Pan's is, of course, a much more fanciful representation of a child's imagination but Spirit is completely rooted in the real world, with only one dream or hallucination sequence. Both films largely deal with the death of innocence and imagination.
The second thing that struck me upon first and subsequent viewings, and the one thing that kept me completely intrigued, was why director Victor Erice used the horror film Frankenstein as the catalyst for the events in the film.
The young girl Ana becomes completely enthralled by the monster in the film, and the most pivotal moment in Frankenstein, when the monster strikes up a friendship with a little girl and then unwittingly causes her death, is both a confusing and fascinating moment for Ana.
I decided to watch Frankenstein in its entirety to see if I could gather any clues as to Erice's intentions. The film itself doesn't yield any enlightenment, but it's the extra features on the DVD, namely the hour-long documentary, that finally shed some light.
Even during its initial appearance, it was reported that children were the ones who easily empathised with the monster. While adults were horrified by its appearance, children related to it in fascinating ways, naturally identifying with its innocence and inherent good nature. Even the young actress Marilyn Harris was said to have had no fear of Boris Karloff in full makeup, but instead, ran up to him and wanted to be his friend. But Mae Clarke was apparently terrified of Karloff's getup and he had to wiggle his little finger during their scene together, just to reassure her that he wasn't real.
This I thought was an endlessly marvellous fact, and nicely ties in with Spirit and its two young sisters. Of course, it's an allegorical tale about Franco's times, and it's about the power of cinema. But ultimately, it's a captivating and truly magical (this is an oft used word when describing Spirit) representation of childhood innocence, its dreams, its imagination, its steadfast refusal to disbelieve, and most of all, its unconditional capacity to love. But most of all, it's the loneliness of being a child that's most haunting about the film.
The vast expanse of the countryside with its golden wheatfields become a cold, lonely beauty, especially so when Ana feels betrayed by her sister Isabel, and goes off to find her "Frankenstein monster," or spirit. The film is also so painstakingly observant of how death and the knowledge of it affects a child.
I don't usually enjoy Spanish films, but The Spirit Of The Beehive is truly a fascinating and uniquely beautiful film. And its power just grows with each subsequent viewing.