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Quiet Eyes, Silent Tears in Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive (1973) August 23, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films.
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Spanish Title: El Espiritu de la Colmena
Directed by Victor Erice
Cast: Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera

If there is one thing that remains present in the world since the beginning of Time, it is the concept of beauty. It changes the landscape of art, it defies norms, it defines figures, and it continues to inspire people to create majestic pieces of indulgence – – may it be poetry, prose, graphic fiction, music, sculpture, painting, dance, or cinema – – it has become an agreeable world to live in, this place of ours, because of beauty.

In cinema, a beauty that stands eternal is not elusive. Take for instance The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice’s debut work whose strange popularity among critics and audience goes beyond the aesthetic understanding of beauty. It moves into various layers of cultural appreciation and becomes a universal signifier of art’s subtle prowess, a kind of film that grows in you, that makes you decipher a million little things in every repeated viewing, like a newly-found hieroglyphic, grand and mystifying, armed with a spell of innocence, both magical and profound.

Seen from a common perspective, it is a film about childhood, Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Clement’s Forbidden Games spring into mind, about the fragile virtue of life without the usual embellishment, without the dramaturgy, without the domestic maladies, without the complicated confusion, without the spiritual dilemma of war, without questioning the difference between living and existing – – its vision pure and sacred – – because if there is one phase in life that we experience this perfection of emotional balance, it is when we were young, when we still have that flair for restless imagination. The Spirit of the Beehive captures that purity – – that thread of metaphysical meandering of a child’s mind, unaware, undisturbed, diluted with nothing but one’s self, every discovery that entails another discovery, learning and disappointment.

In a small Castilian village in 1940, a traveling cinema screens James Whale’s Frankenstein to the townspeople, young and old ones alike, including six-year old Ana and her sister Isabel. Ana, after the film, is haunted by Frankenstein’s image, not frightened though, but deeply interested. Her curiosity on why the monster killed the little girl and why did the people kill him afterward strikes a note on the film’s succeeding events – – Ana’s relationship with Isabel, who tells her that Frankenstein is a spirit whom she can speak with if they are friends, her parents distant lives and preoccupation with the past eating them silently, the soldier who takes refuge in the sheepfold where Ana believes the monster stays, and Ana’s meeting with her own Frankenstein, in the deep forest, near the lake, like in the film, she is the little girl, but Ana knows him, waits for him, wants to see him face to face, wants to know him, and she closes her eyes – – the next morning, they find her in the ruins. She is in need of answers, consummating her quest till the end; she has changed upon learning them.

The Spirit of the Beehive is meditative and visually arresting, the kind of film you watch when you find the world so ugly that living becomes a torture, when hopelessness eclipses your entire mental state. It will not necessarily make you feel good, but at least it has given you quite a reason to stay on track, to look back, to rediscover things, to exhume those bones of beautiful childhood, when life is beautiful anywhere you look at it. Erice refuses to call them scenes but emotional spaces – – poetic unities – – when a child’s gaze takes in the world for the first time – – it nails that feeling. Hence if you view the film in a political perspective, Spain under Franco’s rule after the civil war, the need for freedom becomes more resounding, incredibly felt in almost every frame. It renders its flaws invisible, it lingers obsessively without hesitation, it remains mystifying – – like real magic. It captures the heart of memory, the soul of childhood. In the sea of love, The Spirit of the Beehive swims among the greatest.

Ana Torrent’s performance achieves a collective understanding for mysterious greatness, her sharp eyes, her magnetic gaze, her sweet little face, her voice, her smile that delivers a brush of epiphany, she becomes an icon in this singular film. It marked a turning point in her life, both professionally and personally, and she knew as a grown-up that things had changed in Erice’s marvelous hand. That scene when she and Isabel are in the railway, their ears perched on the tracks, and they hear the train coming, Isabel shouts “Ana!” and Ana moves on the side, then the train passes by, and they stand close and still, it is tantalizing, something in it that makes you want to cringe in unhappiness, in beautiful unhappiness. In her next film, Saura’s Cria Cuervos, she cemented her reputation, again, exquisite and unforgettable. * * * * *

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