#23 – The Spirit of the Beehive
The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973) – directed by Victor Erice
Runtime: 97 mins
Availability: Hulu Plus
A friend of mine asked me the other day if I was going to talk about some of the aspects of the films on the list that I don’t really like. At first, I got defensive. I argued that I just really enjoyed these movies in particular and that I was expecting to like most of the movies because they are on a “best of” list. The last thing that I want to do with this feature here is to just list the things that I like about the films in Empire’s list. In the end, the way I see it, there was too much for me to like about Das Boot and Come and See to have the time or space to point out the parts that I didn’t like so much. However, this conversation with a friend got me thinking about whether I would unabashedly enjoy all the movies in the list and praise their cinematic influence and integrity or if I would not enjoy some of the films. I didn’t have to ponder this question much longer because I really did not like Victor Erice’s 1973 Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive.
Now at this point, I wondered if I didn’t like it because I had missed something while watching the film or because I didn’t have enough of a frame of reference to the state of Spanish culture and government at the time of the film’s release. For the purposes of this article, I’m just going to look at The Spirit of the Beehive from a purely cinematic perspective because that’s all I really know how to do. At the very least, a film should be appealing on a purely entertainment level.
For a movie that only has a runtime of 97 minutes, I found The Spirit of the Beehive incredibly boring. It began promisingly with a very simple and foreshadowing title sequence. I had no idea what the film was about, but I was immediately cued into a child’s mind with crayon drawings of people, trains, a cat, etc. All of the drawings are of objects and images that are important throughout the course of the film, so these pictures act as sort of a summary of what’s to come. The melancholy, nostalgic and somewhat fantastical-sounding music also sets up the recurring themes of the film which center on child psychology and family life. It’s incredible how much information can be packed into a title sequence. Just for reference, my favorite opening title sequence is from David Fincher’s excellent Se7en which perfectly encapsulates the psyche of the serial killer who haunts the entire movie. Also, as a historical sidenote, Saul Bass is one of cinema’s greatest graphic designers who has crafted some of the best and most renowned film title sequences whether you knew they were by him or not. Check out his title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing which The Spirit of the Beehive’s title sequence reminded me of.
So I know you’re asking yourself, why didn’t you like this movie? As is often the case, at least for me, it’s more difficult to write about why I didn’t like something than why I did like something. Boring is an easy enough word to say, but I’m going to try to be a bit more descriptive than that. I hinted at it before—and it’s important to note—that this film is about the psychology of a child. Six-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) sees the 1931 American horror film Frankenstein and she has a difficult time reconciling the fact that Frankenstein kills a girl for seemingly no reason. This may sound mean, but I didn’t think the actress playing Ana did a very good job. Her performance was okay, but when I’m supposed to be delving deep into the psyche of a child, I need to feel enough of a connection to empathize with that character. That didn’t happen to me with this film. I felt more alienated than drawn into the story. I fully accept that this may be intentional, but the impression I got from The Spirit of the Beehive was that it wasn’t so I’m sticking to my argument.
The Spirit of the Beehive also had an incredibly loose narrative. I know for a fact that this was intentional, and I’m not the type of
person to dislike something for this reason, but let me explain why it bothered me more in this film than in others. Normally, if the plot feels meandering and pointless, as it did in this movie, the director is trying to get the viewer to focus on other aspects of the film, like the mise-en-scéne (a fancy French word that refers to the arrangement of everything that is seen in the image, including actors, props, set, etc.), cinematography or soundtrack. For some reason, in this film, it just felt lacking. Don’t get me wrong, the film was incredibly beautiful at certain, like in the scene featuring the image to the right. But, overall these stylistic aspects were few and far between did not make up for the other issues I had with the film. Heavy stylization can be used effectively to be the main point of a film, instead of the narrative, as it often is, but I felt that The Spirit of the Beehive lacked severely in both aspects. Also, did that shot embedded at the right make you think of a certain original 2010 summer blockbuster? (I’m looking at you, Inception) I hope I explained my reasoning for disliking the film well enough so that it’s understandable.
I would not recommend this film to others. I very well could be egregiously overlooking some incredible cinematic feats in this film or
subtle nuances of characterization, but them’s the brakes. With that said, if anybody watched this film and felt very strongly about it, one way or the other, I would love to start some discussion in the comments section you’ll find below. Tell me I’m dumb and that I just can’t appreciate movies that feel meandering (hey Professor Paul). Tell me how much you enjoyed one of these movies and why. Tell me about your dog that you’re super excited to see when you go home for the summer (and send pictures).
I’m going to go on a little hiatus over the summer, but I’ll be back for #22 in August in the fall. Check back in for my review of the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon which uses an, at the time, innovative plot device of showing the same event through multiple character’s perspectives. Think of the narrative device used in Pulp Fiction. I haven’t seen Rashomon before and I’m incredibly excited. I hope you are, too.
Watch it here.
Most memorable line – Ana: “Why did they kill him like that?” [in reference to Frankenstein]
Ana’s sister Isabel: “Everything in movies is fake. It’s all a trick.”