El Espíritu de la Colmena

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
   El espíritu de la colmena remains one of the most prestigious Spanish films, well-known by specialists from all over the world as a milestone in European art films. Remarkably for a culture usually metonymically associated with its most colorful manifestations (Almodóvar, Gaudí, bullfighting, Flamenco), Víctor Erice's film is sparse, restrained, introspective, and closer to Central European traditions represented by Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Andrei Tarkovsky or the films of Yasujro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami.
   Initially, the idea was to make an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but scriptwriter Ángel Fernández Santos progressively moved away from the original and chose to set the story in a Castilian village during the Spanish postwar and focus on a family living through the "time of silence" described in so much literature of the period. Elías Querejeta decided to produce it, and he took a chance on Víctor Erice, a film critic and theoretician whose only experience as director was a segment in the Querejeta-produced Los desafíos (The Challenges, 1969). Two prestigious actors, representing different strands in Spanish cinema, Fernando Fernán Gómez and Teresa Gimpera, would star as the father and the mother, and Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería would play the daughters. Erice brought to the project a deep reflection on the nature of cinema as fantasy and alternative reality. Frankenstein remained as an icon through the use of the projection of James Whale's film version in the village and the role of the monster as the "spirit" the protagonist will try to speak to.
   The shoot was a difficult one. Erice's slow working methods (some would say his attention to detail) created scheduling conflicts with the stars, and he had only one week to shoot all their scenes. Consequently, their roles were greatly reduced and indeed many aspects of these characters' lives remain a tantalizing mystery to audiences. Then it was decided to concentrate on the character of Ana, one of the daughters, to give the film a coherent perspective.
   The story takes place in the 1940s, in a very small village lost in the middle of quiet, gray, barren landscapes. Ana, a watchful little girl (Torrent) and her sister Isabel (Tellería) try to grasp a reality they do not fully comprehend, using their imaginations to make sense of the faint, colorless, images and noises that make up their ordinary lives. Their parents, an introspective couple who hardly speak to each other, also seem to live trapped in that grim, amber-colored reality: the father as a bee farmer, the mother as a lonely woman who spends her life inside the big house writing mysterious letters perhaps to a lover or a brother who left for France during the war. Not very much happens, but one can feel the pain of unhealed wounds in every frame. Erice's method is to concentrate at length on landscape and empty spaces in an attempt to bring out their symbolic meaning. In the film's climax, a distraught Ana escapes from home one night and meets Frankenstein's monster in one of the most beautiful fantasy sequences in Spanish cinema. The monster is somehow linked to underground fighters and soldiers who had to leave the country (like the mother's mysterious correspondent), completing a fascinating web of relationships and symbols. Ana is found and taken back home. Waking up the next night, she goes to the window to greet what could be a spirit, a declaration of principles on the ability of children to be open to inquiry about the surrounding world.
   This is the kind of film built upon glances, moods, and images rather than a strong plot where everything is tied up at the end. It was made during a period of strict censorship, in which a sense of nonconformity and frustration could be hinted or suggested, but never openly articulated; at a time when most attitudes could not be expressed freely, symbol and metaphor speak loudly. In this way, Erice used, in a very specific context, the lesson of his masters. Luis Cuadrado's cinematography is also extraordinarily inventive. On the one hand, he applies pictorial traditions like Johannes Vermeer or Francisco Zurbarán, on the other, he uses a very specific palette to convey the repression of emotions in a period when, as the father's voice-over suggests, order could be horrifying.

Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. . 2010.

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