El Espiritu de la colmena

(The Spirit of the Beehive, Spain - 1973)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ana Torrent, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Isabel Telleria
Genre: Drama
Director: Victor Erice
Screenplay: Victor Erice, Angel Fernandez Santos, Francisco J. Querejeta
Cinematography: Luis Cuadrado
Composer: Luis de Pablo
Runtime: 97 minutes

There are millions of “children’s” movies, but only a handful of films truly make you feel like you are a child living in the film’s world. So many aspects of Victor Erice’s debut feature are praiseworthy, but what sets this enchanting and bewitching visual poem apart is its ability to evoke the innocence, mystery, and wonder of being a 6-year-old. Some people complain the film is very slow and nothing much happens, but that’s two of the key reasons the film succeeds. Erice wants you to forget the narrative and enter the dreamy emotional spaces created by the sensitive honey hued lens of cinematographer Luis Cuadrado.

The catalyst for the slight story is the two sisters, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria) attending the traveling movie, James Whale’s Frankenstein. Ana is young enough to not truly comprehend the difference between fact and fiction, and is particularly disturbed by the scenes of death. Her older sister claims to understand why Frankenstein killed the little girl, but after much prodding she concocts a tall tale to shut her sister up. According to Isabel, Frankenstein is not only still alive but can be seen by pure children such as herself.

The real story lies on the outskirts of the frame, and must be actively sought by the viewer. The censorship under Francisco Franco’s right wing dictatorship prevented any overt leftist criticism, so Erice avoids labels and leaves some gaps. The film takes place in 1940 so the Civil War has ended, but now the survivors who lost, which seems to be all the residents of the isolated village, have to figure out how to live under the government they fought against. These traumatized citizens are largely silent, suppressing their disappointment in a shellshocked catatonia. They go through their rituals, almost as if they are ghosts from a bygone era.

The girl’s father Fernando (Fernando Fernan Gomez) is a detached scientist, manipulating his bees and spending the rest of his time reading and researching in their library. Their mother Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) has a real or imagined lover or friend she constantly writes letters to. Their parents have given up, but the Ana & to a much lesser extent Isabel are bold navigators into the unknown, with Ana reimagining a more colorful and wondrous world. The film shows Ana learning to use her imagination to mold her environment. Is she escaping from reality to shelter her innocence or to counter the bleakness of the rest of her solitary family, perhaps a combination?

Frankenstein’s appeal to Ana is partially his strange familiarity. He’s like her parents, living sad, alienated, and purposeless lives. Actually, he’s like the entire town, bewildered by the ways of an incomprehensible world. Ana gropes for Frankenstein’s spirit because somehow if she finds it things will all make sense to her, the wall between reality and illusion will break down yielding the truth.

Many of the scenes are wordless, which makes the work of young Torrent that much more impressive. Her performance is one of discovery, and though they are new experiences to her they all have the feeling of being the first take; nothing she seems inauthentic. Certainly this is on the short list of seminal children’s performances, right up there with Brigitte Fossey in Forbidden Games and Victoire Thivisol in Ponette.


Gift Set DVD

Gift Set DVD

Web rbmoviereviews.com

* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *