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'Spirit of the Beehive' Buzzes with Beauty

Looking for meaning in Franco's shadow.

By Dorothy Woodend 10 Mar 2006 |

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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You don't need to know that director Victor Erice made The Spirit of the Beehive just as Franco's dark shadow was receding from the Spanish countryside, nor do you need to know that the film's cinematographer Luis Cuadrado was virtually blind, even as he filmed some of the most starkly beautiful scenes ever. You don't really need to know anything about the film at all. Sometimes, mystery is the very best thing there is.

The Spirit of the Beehive is a deceptively simple film. Two sisters and their parents live in a large house in the Castilian region of Spain. Father keeps bees and writes about them in his journal at night. Mother writes letters to some long, lost love, which she sends off like messages in a bottle with the departing train; peopled with sad faces in its windows. Their children, Ana and her sister Isabel do what kids do everywhere, go to school, make up games and have pillow fights. This life is not exceptional; father putters about, mother gazes mournfully into the distance, the sisters go mushroom-hunting in the forest and learn which fungi are edible and which are deadly poison.

But of course, this is only the surface of things. There is another world that underlies this one: a world of darkness, silence, open space and enormous forces moving in the distance. Franco, the ultimate God and monster, is never directly implicated in the film, although the Spanish Civil War is like the sound of a distant train; the underground hum of the rails that the sisters press their ears to. The political allegory is only one level, however, there are multiple levels in this film. It is about being a child and all that is immediately and intimately familiar about this experience to everyone. It is also about the long, slow rhythms of time and long quiet afternoons inside darkened houses, where husband and wife avoid each other, feign sleep when one enters the bedroom, write secret letters and dream. Meanwhile, the children inhabit their own world, one that is largely populated by spirits, dark imaginings and, of course, movies.

Precarious beauty

When director James Whales' version of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff, is shown at the local cinema, its effects are profound and long-lasting on Ana. The images of the monster and the small girl, and the tragedy of misunderstanding that destroys them both, is the underlying text of that film and the pervasive horror and sadness of this meeting influences everything that follows. When Ana acts out her own version of the film, you can't help but feel deeply afraid for her. Life is precarious, a word whose original meaning was "with prayers."

Childhood is as fragile and brief as it is profound, something like this film. In this sense, what is seen is almost as crucial as what is unseen. Erice abruptly cuts away from the scene in Whale's film where the Frankenstein monster inadvertently kills the little girl who has befriended him, thinking she will float; like a flower on the water. This deliberate omission is at the heart of the film's mystery. "Why does he kill the girl?" Ana asks her sister, to which her sister replies, in soft sibilant Spanish, like an incantation, that he didn't kill her, that no one dies in movies. This sets in motion a series of events that will involve every member of the family in different ways. The honeycomb patterns of the windows of their house are echoed by the precisely executed design of the bees. Ana, watching their movement, blows gently on the hive, and, for a moment, disrupts the bee's structured lives, just as she is moved and changed by the entrance of outside forces in the figure of a lumbering monster.

You must kill to dissect, and in this sense, it is probably better to simply watch the film instead of explicating its symbols and motifs. This isn't hard to do; this is an exceptionally beautiful film, painterly, in its use of colour and composition. One scene, in particular, is riveting. Ana and Isabel visit an abandoned house with a well where they're pretending the Frankenstein monster lives. In an extended sequence, the pair runs down a hill towards the distant house, and as they do, they become tiny little specks on an enormous plain as the shadow of a cloud moves slowly overhead. It is a miracle of light, colour and sound all combined to make a story.

Unseen, unreal

Films unseen are films that die in some sense. In an interview with Sight & Sound, Erice is quoted as saying "everyone has the capacity to create and recreate within them. And a film doesn't exist unless it is seen -- if there are no eyes to look at the images, the images don't exist." Erice has only made three films in as many decades and The Spirit of the Beehive hasn't been shown in Vancouver in over ten years, a fact which has been remedied by the Pacific Cinémathèque screening it as part of their recent restorations series.

Another seldom seen film, Love Streams, John Cassavetes' last film, is available to view again. This is thanks to a new print, struck for a Gena Rowland's retrospective that was formerly only available on French DVD. (The film screens again on Monday, March 12.)The first screening of Love Streams at the VanCity Theatre was prefaced with clips from Michael Ventura's documentary entitled, perfectly enough, I'm Almost Not Crazy. Made during the filming of Cassavetes' last film, it featured the American auteur talking about the importance of films that confound you, that aren't easy, that infuriate you with their opacity, their lack of easy resolutions. Love Streams is a good example of this type of groping for meaning, its difficulty and frustration are also its glory. The shock of true surprise is not something you feel everyday, nor is the sensation of utter fury with a film. "You might think I hate this movie!" says Cassavetes. "But ten years later, you will still remember it, and you think I saw something."

The Spirit of the Beehive is one of those films you will always remember seeing.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.  [Tyee]

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