#23 – The Spirit of the Beehive

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The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu de la colmena) (1973) – directed by Victor Erice

Country: Spain

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.”

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  • Katie says:

    no funniest line?!?!
    I live for your funniest lines!!

  • Jessie says:

    Hi! Yay first comment. So first of all, at least for me the youtube links didn’t work. They go to the page, but nothing plays. Secondly, nice shout out to Professor Paul. Thirdly, I haven’t seen either, but did this remind you of Beasts of the Southern Wild at all? Especially in regards to the child psyche- etc. Obviously this film doesn’t seem to have the same action or driving force that BofSW does, but are there any similarities in the way children are portrayed through an adult’s eyes? Why does it work so well for BofSW, but not this film (assuming you agree that the first does so successfully)?

  • Christine says:

    I somehow hadn’t remembered Vertigo’s title sequence–it is so so fantastic. And I too am missing the funniest line’s absence :(

  • Greg Herman says:

    Is anyone else having trouble with the YouTube links?

    Sorry Katie and Christine about the funniest line. This movie just wasn’t very funny at all so I didn’t have many candidates. I imagine it’ll make a comeback with Rashomon on the fall.
    Thanks for commenting, Jessie! I have played around with the YouTube links a bit so hopefully they work now. Let me know if there’s any change. In regards to Beehive’s similarities to Beasts of the Southern Wild, I think you’re right on point. I like BotSW better, I think, because of the incredible performance by Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, the underrated supporting acting job by her character’s father in the film (played by Dwight Henry), and the fact that it was set in the Bayou. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I can relate and have a context for the tragedies that occurred there. I felt very distanced from the events of The Spirit of the Beehive.
    One similarity that they both share though, is the way children use a fantasy world to escape from their surroundings. Because of this reason, Beehive has often been seen as a huge influence on Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This scene in particular: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=iZnI6ELja0k#t=1945s, is often said to be called back to in Pan’s Labyrinth with this character (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=pXQZ2epJIqg#t=6s). Don’t worry, there’s no spoilers in that link. Honestly, I don’t see the similarity between those scenes too much, except that they both involve eyes.

  • Ben Luben says:

    Wow, I have to completely disagree as this is one of my 10 favorite movies of all time. I would especially dispute your comment about the stylization and mise-en-scene, which to me were incredibly immersive throughout. The style of the film for me was brilliantly cohesive and depicted Ana’s view of the world pretty strikingly to my eyes. On the subject of Ana’s acting though, I could understand if not agree with your critique based on the fact that she wasn’t especially emotive. However, through the quiet moments of character development and her interaction with the world around her, the actress who played Ana developed a character who I thought was pretty fascinating. Opinions are opinions and all that, but I would have to COMPLETELY disagree with your review. Very interested to hear your thoughts on 14, 11, and 8 though. I am however, reminded as I type this how ridiculous the order of this list is (2 and 15: heh… And really #3? It holds up significantly less well than it should).

  • Nomegustanhipsters says:

    Hi Greg, The movie contains a lot of symbolism about the Spanish Civil War and about how the Francoist regime left Spain with an strict Christian and imaginatively barren wasteland of a country. This is seen with repetition of religious symbols and lack of emotional expression as well as a desolate setting. Therefore, it is strong in its symbolism and unique with its cunning criticism of the war. However, it doesn’t escape the fact that the movie was lacking on so many other levels (like acting quality, scenery, character development, tying up subplots, etc).
    Also, it’s important to notice the theme of “mental escapes.” Each major character has his/her own form of escape from their barren and boring wasteland (as caused by the war). Teresa (the mother) escapes by fantasizing about and writing to her former lover. Ana and Isabel escape through their imagination and fascination with horror (finding Frankenstein, the train scene). Fernando escapes through writing and through his “glass beehive,” which portrays him as a little crazy. The movie even opens up with a common sense of escape from life and reality: watching a movie (witch is ironic because it’s in a movie).
    Altogether, even though the movie had a lot of strong messages, it was still extremely boring with many unnecessarily long pauses and scenes. I really don’t think it deserves a 100% on rotten tomatoes, but I think it should be considered an important historical fiction piece.

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