FILM NOTES INDEX
NYS WRITERS INSTITUTE
The Spirit of the Beehive
(Spain, 1973, 97 minutes, color, 35 mm)
Directed by Victor Erice
Fernando Fernán Gómez . . . . . . . . . . Fernando
Teresa Gimpera . . . . . . . . . . Teresa
Ana Torrent . . . . . . . . . . Ana
Isabel Telleria . . . . . . . . . . Isabel
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
In 1973, the year of The Spirit of the Beehive, the Francoist regime in Spain was rotting from the inside. Its leader was frail, probably dying. Democracy waited just beyond the door of the death chamber, pacing anxiously and looking at its watch. It had been a long time since the murder of the Second Republic in 1939, and Spaniards were impatient.
Franco’s rule was borne amidst multiple and hideous violations of human rights and the quashing of civil liberties. Political speech had been restricted for so long that one was no longer sure what it meant to `speak politically’ in Spain. Instruction came from an unlikely corner: the arts. Through satire, allegory, ellipsis, and occasionally, out and out criticism, resident painters and novelists and dramatists sought ways to speak the truth about Franco’s fascism to Spain and the world while avoiding becoming among the disappeared.
Filmmakers in such restricted societies as Franco’s Spain have always been among the most ingenious in subtly expressing resentment and rejection of intimidation, whether the Prague Spring and Eastern European filmmakers who satirized the Soviet Union, or Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers who have softly but insistently criticized the regime, or the contemporary Iranian feminist cinema, undercutting institutionalized sexism. So it was with filmmakers in the latter Franco years.
The tone was set by Spain’s greatest filmmaker, Luis Buñuel. In exile since the Civil War, he returned to shoot Viridiana there in 1962. Somehow, this anti-clerical parable passed the state censors, whose minds were apparently not very supple. The Franco regime was intimately tied to the Catholic Church, and Buñuel had been smacking the Church for many years in the cinema. Buñuel, a skilled and eloquent fabulist in word as well as image, got away with it, and was out of the country before the world began informing Spain that it had been sorely duped.
Buñuel’s example wove itself into the lives and art of a new generation of Spanish filmmakers, led by Carlos Saura, a teacher at the National Film School in the 1960’s, and godfather to a new wave of Spanish cinema. Mario Camus, Jose Luis Borau and Manual Gutierrez Aragon were among the directors incubated in this moment of political and cultural transition. Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, however, more than any other single film in the wake of Viridiana, announced to the world that the culture of Francoism, if not its dictatorial military power, was vulnerable. Borrowing from Buñuel, Erice and his collaborators raise an allegorical question mark that begins with the film’s opening gambit: “Once upon a time…” leads us, not to some timeless neverland, but to Spain in 1940, at the moment of its plunge into despair.
The beehive is the film’s totem of a troubled Spanish society, in Marvin D’Lugo’s words, “a symbol of a social order which, while superficially unified, is nevertheless marked by a radical isolation of each of its members from one another.” Such, argues Erice, has been the deep psychological cost of the Civil War and its following decades of repression. Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) tends the bees, and his family lives nearby, in unconscious impersonation of the apiary. The family and its unreflective, repressive structure are challenged, not by a political rally or an act of terrorism, but by the sublime subversion of the cinema. In Fernando’s sleepy Castilian village, the only excitement is stirred by the movies, a fantasy realm to which the villagers devote themselves, desperate for an imaginative alternative to the dry routine of their days. One Saturday, a particular film, James Whale’s striking Frankenstein, is shown in the town hall. For Fernando’s daughter, Ana (Ana Torrent), the film erupts from the screen, shattering the smooth surface of her days, and tossing her into a series of mystical adventures and hallucinations which offer themselves as a kaleidoscope of exciting, incredible alternatives to the dull mental regimentation of Francoism.
Now surreal, unmoored, and odd, The Spirit of the Beehive careers from one strange vision to another, the fantasies of Ana and her circle always in contrast to the spirit of the beehive. This is a Cinema Paradiso for the anarchists among us, a testament to the liberating power of art, and a courageous, smiling indictment of conformity and hypocrisy.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.