A film with no ghost and very few bees.
The Film: Victor Erice’s 1973 examination of childhood and postwar Spain
The Potable: One bottle of Moonlight Meadery honey mead
By the age of six, I had developed a taste for horror movies. I don’t remember having seen any, but it was a genre I considered both brave and adult. Something to lord over my brother, who was still heavy into Care Bears. This dauntless image of myself was shattered after seeing a single scene from The Fly remake. I had nightmares of a melting Jeff Goldblum for weeks. This perception was shattered further still after I saw a mere picture of the Child’s Play doll. It’s a testament to Ana, the child protagonist of The Spirit of the Beehive, that she can watch a movie like Frankenstein and learn a lesson in empathy and moral relativism, whereas I, to this day, would fucking dropkick Chuckie into oncoming traffic.
This is where the film begins, a rundown cinematique in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War. The fascists have won, and the battle-weary villagers are eager to resume a normal life. Shell casings litter the countryside and it’s next to impossible to find fresh pears at the grocery store. Forget about kumquats. What can people do to forget about the past?
Ana’s father has taken to beekeeping, a development I assumed would be a larger plot point. Surely Ana is allergic, I thought. Surely she gets stung chasing a frisbee and has to be rushed to the nearest hospital, only to find the country’s healthcare infrastructure crippled by the war. An ironic fate, indeed, to survive the bloodshed, only to have your daughter poisoned by your own flock of European honey bees. My own father recently started beekeeping – “sting wrangling,” he calls it – and believe me, I keep my distance. But none of this happens. Ana seems all but immune to the bugs and life goes on, even if the plot does not.
Ana also has an older sister, Isabel. They seem to have a good relationship, but it’s difficult to tell with girls. My brother knew how I felt about Care Bears; I liked the show until I didn’t, and then I ridiculed his fandom to no end. Isabel is up to something more subtle. One morning, Ana finds her unconscious on the floor, bathed in the honeycomb light of the Castilian autumn. Is this the work of the titular Spirit? A wartime casualty reborn as child-killing poltergeist? No. It’s just Isabel being a dick. She gets up, giggles, and skips to the kitchen for a Gogurt. Another potential plot point squandered.
While occupying relatively little screen time, it is arguably Ana’s mother who does the most to advance the film’s story. As her husband sting wrangles and takes the kids on bizarre mushroom hunts, she writes letters to an unknown, long-lost lover. It seems safe to assume that the wounded Republican soldier Ana finds in a nearby farmhouse one day is the recipient of these letters, though I was on my fourth glass of mead by this point. Ana brings the man food, water, and a pocket watch, since nothing says “get well soon” like a ticking reminder of time’s impermanence and your own mortality. The soldier is a good sport, says thank you, but I have to assume he rolled his eyes once she left.
The Spirit of the Beehive is widely considered to be the masterpiece of Spanish cinema, in part because of its rich symbolism. Ana’s willingness to aid this man, a soldier from the losing side of a conflict, makes him him a clear stand-in for the Frankenstein monster she sympathized with at the film’s beginning. The beehives are emblematic of the soulless order imposed by the Francoist regime. The vast empty empty fields represent the monotone speaking style of President Nixon, whose resignation was a big deal at the time. Honey? An obvious reference to the economic threat imposed by artificial sweetener imports.
The film’s lighting, if artificial, feels very real and sun-like.
Erice’s film has left an indelible mark on cinematic history. Borrowing from the likes of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Ingmar Bergman, traces of The Spirit of the Beehive can, in turn, be found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Also set in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, del Toro’s movie tells the story of a young girl who uses fantasy to escape her frightening reality. It’s a lovely picture that would make for an interesting double feature if I could stand to make it through the scene with the palm-eyes monster. How did I become such a chickenshit?
Verdict: the bee’s knees