Thursday, September 15, 2016

Victor Erice | El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive)

monsters, bees, and spirits

by Douglas Messerli

Víctor Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos, and Francisco J. Querejeta (screenplay, based on a story by Victor Erice and Ángel Fernández Santos), Victor Erice (director) El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) / 1973

In conjunction with his show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro was asked to curate a series of films, the most recent of which, Victor Erice’s 1973 El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive), was viewed by Howard, our friend Pablo, and me this past week.

Although made in the slightly more liberal period of the late Franco regime, it was still a time when artists found it better to hide their critical messages through ellipsis and layered symbolism than to openly express it, much like the later Argentine poets of the XUL group hid their meanings from the censor, but which might later be comprehended by their audiences. The art here lies in its complex subtlety; obvious gestures could be easily perceived by the government, and yet too obscure messages might be missed by general viewers and readers. Such writing, as in Carmen Laforet’s stunning Nada (see “Leaving Nothing Behind” in My Year 2007) and numerous other works of the Spanish Franco era, depended entirely on a kind of balance of open narrative and more obscure meanings that might be missed by people outside of the culture itself.

      Erice’s beehive, derived from the Maurice Maeterlinck work The Life of the Beehive, published in English in 1901, presents the life of beehive as a mixed affair. Although its ordered notions of society help the bees to work as an effective community, they are, at the same time, all subjects to their queen, and unable to make individual decisions, a blind obedience which makes it nearly impossible for humans to completely comprehend. Yet, of course, Franco’s dictatorship was attempting just such subjugation to the general society (as, we must remind ourselves, Stalin also attempted to instill in the Soviet Union and Hitler in Germany). 
     Erice takes us to the beehive world not only through the intellectually removed father and husband of this work, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), who spends most of his days caring for his honeybees, but through the entire honeycombed windows of the family’s house and honey-colored light that infuses this entire film. 
     Fernando’s younger wife, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), on the other hand, is a true romantic, pining for her lost lover of another time, and writing him secret love notes she posts to the local trains mail boxes which pause in her village. 
     At the center of this film, however, are the couple’s two young daughters, Isabel (Isabel Tellería) and Ana (Ana Torrent), who, except when they are in school, are left pretty much to their own devices, wandering the local village and fields. Early in the film, they attend a mobile cinema screening, in the town’s city hall, of James Whale’s Frankenstein, brought by Franco forces to this village and others presumably to show the dangers of “monsters” within the society, people who did not obey the Franco norms who needed to be destroyed so that the society might safely survive.


      Ana, however, is not so much frightened by the monster but is curious about "Why did he kill the girl, and why did they kill him after that?" Her older sister, a bit impatient with Ana’s naiveté gives the “realist” answer: the monster did not truly kill the girl and she isn’t really dead. But she then adds in admonition that might surely have been supported by the Spanish Catholic Church: such monsters do exist, but as spirits, that can be called into life by simply speaking to them: “It’s me, Ana.”
       Ana is even more convinced by such unearthly spirits when her sister takes her, across a vast unplowed field (clearly representing the failure of Franco forces to help the farmers to create a rich land) to a crumbling empty sheepfold. No spirits appear, but Ana does see a large footprint that seems suggest someone or something has visited the spot.

     After her sister later tricks her by pretending her own death, Ana becomes further troubled, and one night, escapes the house, making a late-night visit to the isolated building. There she now finds a man, a Republican soldier who has escaped from a train and holed-up in the sheephold. He, in fact, may be the lost lover of Ana’s mother, but the child has no comprehension of what she suddenly discovers. Like the young girl in the Frankenstein myth, she simply knows that he is suffering, and returns the next morning with food, her father’s coat, and his watch which she has stolen to give to the stranger—events which also call up, without even having to speak them, Charles Dickens’ childhood classic, Great Expectations
      That evening the Francoist forces arrive, discovering the soldier and shoot him to death. 
     Having found the coat and watch in the dead soldier’s possession, the police visit the gentle beekeeper, searching for an explanation. Fortunately, they presume it had been stolen; yet he knows the truth by watching his family members’ reactions to his report of the incident.
     When Ana returns, she finds only remnants of blood, magically suggesting her bond with the dead soldier. Followed by her father, she bolts and is unable to be found for several hours. 
      Along her route she may or may not have eaten of the poisonous mushrooms which her father had previously pointed out to her and her sister. In any event, she is eventually found unharmed. But her recovery is slow, and she seems to lie in a kind of fitful coma, suffering the events, assures their doctor, that will eventually be forgotten.
      But perhaps Ana has gone into a kind of trance, much like her mother’s romantically-inclined memories of her past. Although Ana’s mother finally comes to realize that the past is over, as we see her throw yet another of her letters into the fire, Ana links herself with it, calling out into the night, “It’s me, Ana,” connecting herself with a pre-Franco world that is the only one which the citizens can hope for. Surely the spirits of the past, whoever they are, cannot be as terrible as the monsters with whom they have been forced to live.

Los Angeles, September 15, 2016

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