More than The Secret Life of Bees

The Spirit of the Beehive (dir. Victor Erice, 1973)

“Keep a close watch on your creature.”

“Considered by some critics the single greatest achievement

of Spanish cinema, haunting cinematography, flawless

performances, and a foreboding pace make this a truly special


Opening scene:  A wide freight truck careens along a road on the flat Spanish Castilian plain; the year is 1940.  Then arriving at the small village of Huyuelos, it weaves through narrow, hardpan streets and between crack-walled buildings and finally draws up before a dilapidated town hall, a swarm of children streaming in its wake.  It’s a traveling movie company.  A plump townsman, the village showman, helps unload the film canisters; he goes in and out of the truck doors.  Impatiently, he informs the eager, inquiring children: “It’s a wonderful film.”  “The best film I’ve ever brought to town.” Finally, he exclaims, “It’s beautiful!”  Already we have in those words a fair description of Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973).  As the people, mostly old men, women and children, pour into the unlit town hall, they quickly fill the frames of chairs they brought with them in this windowless nest.  Soon the screen lights up and the viewers sit agog, as dapper Edward Van Sloan emerges from the movie’s theatrical curtains to introduce the film of James Whale’s Frankenstein:  “… preliminary word of caution…”; “… man of science”; “… one of the strangest stories ever told;” “… great mysteries of creation”; “…life and death.”  “You may be shocked or even horrified…  ”;  he concludes with “But do not take it too seriously.”  Again we have a showman’s words.  These words of great content about the Frankenstein film the townspeople will watch resonate descriptively, doing double service, foreshadowing for us Beehive viewers the rare experience we are about to behold.  However, acting as a literary showman, I would urge viewers of Beehive to take director Erice’s film very seriously.

As the silver screen shines on the faces of fascinated watchers, the scene switches to a close up of a masked beekeeper in an apiary, a monstrous, alien face enclosed in meshed headgear.  With a bellows canister-gun, he is smoking bees dancing agitatedly on a hive frame to numb their flight-fright response.  Intriguing parallels: a cluster of entranced people in the dark viewing Frankenstein and a masked beekeeper intently viewing a screen of honeycomb.  Such images in poetic juxtaposition take on metaphorical importance and connect ever more acutely as one comes to study and know the film better.   As with almost any film, but especially with this gem, each viewing of Beehive can add ever greater depth to one’s appreciation of the film’s meanings and worth.

Having taken Beehive to heart, I will attempt in this essay a serious analysis of the film.  What I say will probably only make sense for those thoroughly familiar with the film, but I would wish to encourage every film aficionado who has seen it once to watch it again, and especially to gather together for a showing those who haven’t seen it.  The theme it expresses is universal but one, I believe, we need to learn to heal our age of disillusionment and despair.  In the beginning of the 21st century, we have a world, our Earth, showings signs of being worn out and we have a world, its people, weary of war and its abominations.   How do we go on in an effete world where the oppression of people by dominant militaristic powers looks likely to continue?  Erice depicts in The Spirit of the Beehive just such a dilemma for Spain in 1940 and he presents an ecological attitude of the mind that will be essential for human survival.  His lesson, first presented in 1973 through his film, has still to be learned and acted upon by all people in our endangered local and planetary state.  Through reconciliation of horror and beauty, Erice and his collaborators have made a monumental record of film’s poetic possibilities to inform and instruct a benighted world.  Serious artists throughout time have been attempting the same awakening.

So this is an Art Film?
Of the critics who praise Erice’s work, Professor Paul Julian Smith, in his short essay for the Criterion DVD booklet, concludes with:  [It is a] “film that has left behind an indelible mark on cinema in Spain and beyond.”[2] No doubt about it, there is an exceptional, deliberate, contemplative artistry at work in The Spirit of the Beehive.  It is film artistry seldom found today, but, even in its time, so wholly poetic in the texture of a film that its aesthetic, mystical and psychological powers might appeal immediately to only a small audience of knowing viewers.  These days it would probably leave the larger audience, used to escapist movies, dumbfounded.  Sure, there are legions of moviegoers who still cannot appreciate a creation with unorthodox narrative sequences or who feel unsatisfied with a film of unexplained resolution.  Beehive might be just the kind of enchantment that could turn somnolent viewers of ordinary film fare into wide-awake film watchers.

Enchantment of the Beehive
More than any vintage foreign film I have viewed in recent years, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive enchanted me.  It lives up to the high praise it has received from critics and commentators over the past decades.  Although I first viewed it two years ago on video on a 36” TV–and I might say it endeared itself to me on that initial viewing–it was not until I watched it on the large screen at Tacoma’s Center For Spiritual Learning, thanks to the Tacoma Film Club’s (TFC) Friday presentations, that I appreciated the awe which can come over one watching something closely approximating sublime, pure film.  It is at film clubs and societies one is likely to see a viewing of films like Beehive.

The story, or rather each scene, unfolds with quiet gravity and melancholy, with the existential anxiety and sensuous intimacy of a troubled family’s life.  For want of a comparison in such film art, Ingmar Bergman’s best psychological films conveyed a similar subconscious depth in the past.  Since the TFC’s projection, I have watched Beehive again, sensing in its silences the sadness of loss of a way of life, loss of family or friends who fought in the war, the strange agonies of growing up and gaining consciousness, and the dreadful, despondent feelings, the unsure survival in the interim before what constitute new ways of life and mind have been discovered or become acceptable.  In Beehive, the fascination of presentations of dense psychological reality in the portrayal of characters can only correspond with one’s own intense feelings and uncertain imaginings, especially feelings resonating from distant experiences of irrational childhood, growing up in that murderous, warring, fascistic twentieth century.  Yes, one remembers the good times, but the last century, and not just in Europe, was very bloody, with totalitarian ideologies of power everywhere aiming to dominate and control people or destroy them.

Beehive depicts a dominated family and society, and yet, whether one knows the Spanish history or not, all the unanswered and unanswerable questions the film invokes add to a marvelous expression of profound human experience, both in the actions of the young and naïve figures and in those of the mature who have been taken aback by victory of ruthless authoritarian powers.  A ferocious madman, heedless of citizens needs, has seized the Spanish government.

History Matters
The Criterion double-disk DVD, besides offering a beautiful, carefully copied representation of the film itself, contains a “Special Features” disk with several thoughtful interview sessions with director Erice, co-screenwriter Ángel Fernández Santos, and other creative contributors, detailing the problems of making the film and finally releasing it from the Spanish board of censors.  In Franco’s Spain (he died in 1975 after 35 years of rule), a subtle art film, or any serious literature, painting, drama, etc., might ostensibly be suspect, containing covert political criticism of General Francisco Franco’s military victory against Republican forces or the oppressive reign of power that followed.  A film, portentous and grim in mood, and one set in 1940 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, was definitely suspect.  For Erice and his friends, it was a daring feat—quixotic I might say–to produce such an introspective, spirited work, which was obviously driven by their ideological and artistic motives.

Superficially, the play and its characters do not incite rebellion but make a serious point about brutal takeovers and the impact on the human psyche.  The adult characters, a mother, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), and a father, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), conduct their married lives separately in somber and torpid passivity in an old and worn village mansion, a prosperous family seat of past eras.  The apiary of many hives and the honeycomb motifs that appear on the mansion’s window glass imply honey production was a major industry of the family; nature and nurture through human ingenuity worked harmoniously once upon a time.  Their children, Ana (Ana Torrent), probably five years old and in her first year of school, and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), older and maturer by perhaps two or three years, are the focal lively characters of the house, whose testing of boundaries between life and death, the physical and metaphysical realms, makes up the greater part of the narrative.  The children, well dressed and cared for, primarily by the maid Milagros, live quite independently of the parents and have ample freedom to play games of great daring both within the cells of the great house and out in the fallow fields and by railroad tracks of the village’s environs.

“Daddy, stay and play with me.”

In a well-known scene of the Frankenstein film the Hoyuelos people watch, the country girl, Marie, asks her father to stay home, but he, busy man he is, must go to town or to his fields.  In his absence, Frankenstein’s monster, having escaped his prison cell is left to roam because Dr. Frankenstein fled in horror at his creation, and happens upon the little girl by her cottage on the lake.  Surprised, she fearlessly greets him, takes the monster’s hand, sits with him and plays with flowers. Most of Beehive’s plot moves on Ana’s wonder at why the Karloff monster killed Marie.  At the film’s conclusion she also wonders why the townspeople destroyed Frankenstein’s creature. In a posse, they chase the monster into the mill and set fire to the windmill.  These horrors sank into her psyche.  Ana is naturally enchanted by the gentle flower game played by the simple-minded monster with Marie, and, of course, mystified by her subsequent death.  (The scene of the drowning of the girl had always been deleted, until recent times, from the original version, an omission which could only have puzzled any viewer’s mind.  When the little girl was carried dead in the father’s arms through the street, what horror was a viewer to assume in her death?[3])

At nighttime, after the girls have bedded down, Ana earnestly prompts Isabel to explain the mysteries imprinted in her while watching Frankenstein.  As a candle flickers between them (with a sacred Maria icon to the left of it and a monkey puppet to the right), Isabel reluctantly complies, playing on her sister’s innocence.  Isabel informs Ana that the creature didn’t die, that films are fake.  The man, the monster, Isabel explains, became a spirit, as it is with the dying.  Further prompted by Ana, the cunning sister, working with shreds of religious mythology fed to her in church and school, confides that she knows where departed spirits live.  One day after school, Isabel, going on childhood intuition to convince her sister, points out an abandoned animal barn and its fairytale water well.  Ana’s concern for the monster and her questioning of the killing of the monster by the posse of crazed townspeople would have warmed the cockles of James Whale’s spiritual heart.  As I see the conclusion of Frankenstein, the monster’s destruction in the fire of the village mill (not filmically referenced in Erice’s Beehive representation) was an act of blind hysteria by irrational villagers, a violation of their own livelihood.  It was an illustration how irrational people behave when they are stricken with mortal fear.  The world seems to be going to pieces.  These references alone ring in the knowing viewer’s psyche.

Folktale Motifs
Perhaps Erice drew on folktale imagery to add an air of innocence and ambiguity in his depiction of post-war realities.  Also traditional imagery adds universal themes and motifs for a larger audience to embrace. This would not necessarily have deterred the censors from finding fault with the feelings and psychology conveyed.  Folk stories always carry a wished-for nationalistic sentiment and are charged with admonitions.   From “Once upon a time…” to the shenanigans of children circling an abandoned water-well and jumping over blazing bonfires, Erice has employed mythic imagery to take the viewer back to another time, when nature ruled the sensibilities of simple souls.  The picture, in the opening credits, of a red-capped fairy-tale mushroom (Amanita muscaria) and the mention of its name by Ana during the mushroom collecting sequence, are significant symbols of the other world, or the mysterious natural world that modern people have grown distant from.[4] Beyond the mansion as a beehive (the openings of doors from one cell to another), the imagery of humans entering single-doors on huge facades—the folk entering one by one the town hall, the children entering the school door, Ana’s entering (and exiting) the animal shelter, in one door and out the other, as well as exiting and entering the basement door shrouded with ivy—these repetitions take on ritual meaning.  We hear the buzz and see what goes on inside.  The comings and going in and out of the mansion’s doors and the repetitions of Ana’s “Soy Ana” well ritual and wish to find her spirit in the shelter—these strike one as a searching for something important out in nature that cannot be found at home.  Ana’s flared cape-like coat and her red lunch-bag are reminiscent of the Red-Riding-Hood image.  When folk stories find a place of mystery within the home, as with Isabel’s death tricks, it is generally to the disadvantage of the innocent and good for the benefit of the experienced trickster.  Sadistically, Isabel continues knowingly to spook her sister with monster games.   The fascist censors of 1973 might very easily pass this imagery off as intellectual ambiguity, not readily intelligible to cinema audiences.  This seems to have been the reason for allowing its distribution.[5] Nevertheless, even on the subconscious level, Erice’s symbolism of the rituals of Beehive still pays out meaning to audiences aware of folklore from childhood readings.

Worlds In-between
Besides the antique folk imagery, the rustic, peasant setting, especially its village architecture and scenes of broad field vistas, is overarching in importance.  The Castilian farming village of Hoyuelos has been left barren for some years, cleaned out of able-bodied men who have not returned home from the war.  The limbo of inactivity and quiet desperation could well imply a pall of doubts and fears about future hardship, which came to pass under Franco’s repressive fascist regime.  A significant scene includes a rag-tag soldier, a deserter of Franco’s army or a refugee of the Republican cause[6] who has escaped capture; in his leap from a speeding rail wagon, he injures himself, and then luckily finds shelter in the sheep barn in the farm field near Hoyuelos, the very barn to which Ana regularly returns, seeking her wandering “spirit.”  Soon after Ana discovers him and begins to nurture him, the soldier is shot—Blam! Blam! Blam!–in the dark of night, no questions asked, by the government police.  The soldier’s role can be taken, obviously, as one of high political significance in the temporal, historical circumstances, but the greater aspect for Beehive is neither military nor political in the narrative context.  Ana accepts him as her materialized spirit whom she cares for with gifts of food and articles of her father’s clothing.  Whatever acute criticism of Franco’s fascism the censors tried to uncover, the themes and motifs Erice secreted in his work escaped the scrutiny of the inquisitors’ eyes.  Erice himself states the film was thought strange and uninteresting by the censors, too peculiar to find audiences who might appreciate it.  (Isn’t the life of art funny?)

Beehive, once distributed, became an immediately celebrated work, winning the 1973 San Sebastián Film Festival top honor, but not without noticeable noisy, vocal detractors.  Thereafter, its popularity continued to grow, especially in the regions of Catalonia, Andalusia, and the Basque cities, strongholds of the former republican loyalists.  Now it is renowned and people around the world are still discovering, and falling under the spell of, The Spirit of Beehive.

History Matters, Redux
I have always believed that knowing something of the history and cultural setting of a film will help a viewer appreciate the events in a story.  Admittedly the Spanish Civil War does not loom large in the consciousness of Americans, who experienced in their film and TV newsreels and history books greater exposure to the atrocities of Hitler’s fascist empire making, which was simultaneously taking place and overshadowing the massacres and persecutions perpetrated by Franco’s forces and police.  Nevertheless, to know something of Picasso’s renowned Guernica of 1937 and what he exposed to the world, to know of the massive migration of refugees from the republican provinces, to be aware of the human destruction (in the hundreds of thousands) and the later prisons and concentration camps (housing hundreds of thousands from 1939-1947) helps to understand the dark, isolated world the Spanish family in Beehive inhabit.  The Hoyuelos mansion, quite bare of furnishings, is the remote place of refuge where they hid from the war’s hostilities.  Even so, if one doesn’t grasp the oppressive socio-cultural climate, just on the psychological level of the film’s story, the shadowy limbo world of the weary parents, and of the children Ana and Isabel, consciously unaware of grave historical change, gives the viewer much to discover and plenty to digest.

Heart and Mind Elsewhere
In the opening scenes, the importance of psychological mood is established by the portrait of Teresa, framed in an aura of Vermeer’s honeyed lighting, as she voices her thoughts in the writing of a letter.  Sound-cut into the early moments of Fernando’s beekeeping, during his puzzled contemplation of the bees on the honeycomb frame he has pulled from a hive, the mother thinks/speaks of the sorrow of parting and the longing for the joy of another’s presence.  There are strong intimations in her language (“happy moments we spent together,” “joy of seeing you again is my constant prayer ever since we parted during the war”) and in the tone of her voice that she is secretly writing to a departed lover.  But the person could also be a family member she dearly loves.  She writes without nostalgia, she says, of the war years and of her bare survival amidst the destruction, loss and emptiness of recent years of conflict and flight.  The walls have come down and her family’s home has been diminished of its belongings.  Teresa wonders whether she has come through the war years with any feeling for life intact.  Her expression is confused, one of psychological trauma in an abyss of despair.  She then bicycles straightway to the rail station to post her sad letter.   She says she is not nostalgic, but she’s a woman in denial: she’s all feeling and longing for a time gone and a person “elsewhere.”

As with such expressions of sadness, when much is to be perceived through mood and atmosphere, the silent artistry of the cinematographer is a major element of the overall effects.  For this power, Erice drew on Luís Cuadrado, working in the last years of his life and with failing eyesight.  Thus the success of the photography, the compositions, the magical lighting choices and the depth-of-field judgments over open-air, flatland vistas, deep and distant, becomes truly amazing.  Likewise, musical composition is mood enhancing, and here the sparse intrusions of Luís de Pablo’s spritely, melodic flute and expressive guitar sequences add another refined quality to the overall artistic effects.  Another element that is an attribute to film’s magic is the silence.  Of course, silence is itself an alert to something amiss in human relationships, but something film has sought hard to maintain since sound came to the cinematic medium.  Significant silence will be discovered again as we go forward with experimental film.  Erice’s choice of sequences of silent film makes Beehive magically sublime.[7]

Infandum: “The Unutterable”
Having lived through Franco’s age, since his birth in 1940, Erice knew, i.e. felt, the terror of suffering suppression; the agony of keeping silent about abominations is strongly expressed in his film.  Beehive is the artist’s uttering (i.e. “outering”), his representation of the thing that must not be spoken and his awareness of the tragic sense of life.  In this he may have been heeding the philosophical message of Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), the Bilbaoan Basque professor, Spain’s spokesman for the virtue of passion, in its religious and emotional senses.   The presence of Unamuno’s philosophy in Beehive is not a weak suspicion of mine for the sake of another pedantic paragraph.  A picture of the bearded, bespectacled philosopher is shown with young Fernando in one of the photographs Ana looks through in the family album.  In Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno discusses the depths of despair and the undercurrents of vibrant inner life that can rise imaginatively in poetic, mythological and religious emanations.  Regarding the silence of abomination, Unamuno says:

“… I believe that it is necessary to speak the thing which must not be spoken.  But if it leads to nothing?  Even if it should lead only to irritating the devotees of progress, those who believe that truth is consolation, it would lead to not a little.  To irritating them and making them say: Poor fellow! If he would only use his intelligence to greater purpose!”[8]

Even to this day, Spaniards are striving to have the truth of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War brought to light.  An Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory is at work trying to erase the false propaganda of the past 69 years and to break the silence about the crimes against humanity during that war.[9] Not only in 1973 was Erice breaking the silence, irritating the censors with his ambiguous film poetry, he was also countering the despairing tragic sense with an expression of hope through the story of Ana’s spiritual quest.  In a world where people live empty somnambulist existences, the collective psyche stultified by re-vulgarized, medieval subjugation, she is the lone creature endowed with a mind awake and passion of soul.  Such alert souls Unamuno dreamed of for Spain—for Europe and the world–in the early part of the twentieth century, freeing itself, he hoped, from myopic industrialized specialism, historical materialism, and the propaganda of progress.  The child’s “Soy Ana” is a lone voice calling in the wilderness.[10]

Fascination of the Bees
Moving from the black-and-white Frankenstein scenes to the early color close shot of the masked apiarist, a significant correspondence, as previously mentioned, can be made between the Karloff monster mask and Fernando’s, but, more saliently, Fernando as a man of science can also be compared with Dr. Frankenstein, both creator and meddler.  As Fernando examines the bees frantically buzzing and waggling on the honeycomb, he seems transfixed as he fathoms this mystery of nature, for he does not know what he observes and he does not then harvest the honeycomb.  He observes the lively movement of the bees, dancing and buzzing across the frame as they would behave even more vigorously within the dark hive.  Later, in his upstairs study, gaunt Fernando slowly paces in deliberation and he observes a large glass square hive with a hanging wire-mesh chimney, in which bees appear to be scurrying or dancing along an encircling web of a helix ladder.  These are models, prototypes of a hive and perhaps a nest, devised for a scientific experiment, to see inside the secret world.  The nest-hive is different from the wooden square box-hives, which have the extractable and replaceable frames.

As the inventor of this new style of apiary, Fernando appears to have a scientific interest observing what the community of bees do within the hive, how they might keep to their class divisions of labor, how the workers communicate through movement the way to the nectar fields.   In the solitude of his lamp-lit upper study, accompanied by dynamic sounds of distant drumbeats or marching feet, Fernando sits with head-phones working the frequencies of his home-made wireless set, searching for news of the outside world, already going to pieces through Hitler’s invasions and blitzkriegs.  Then he writes in his journal, about an anonymous “Someone” who is fascinated by commotions–the twists and turns, the comings and goings–of the bees observable in the glass-encased hive, fitted, as he says, with clockwork gears.  He writes that they live hidden away from sickness and sorrow.  Yet once the enthusiasm and fascination of the bee observer are sated, the wonder at the bees’ social system fades, and the “Someone” is left with a sense of sadness and horror.  His newly composed sentences are then crossed out; by anonymizing himself he hides his identity.   He, too, is numb, uncertain, traumatized.  This pattern–wonder at the mystery of life, the fascination of studying nature, inventing, and then disillusionment, with resulting sadness and horror–is the very same psychic syndrome that Dr. Frankenstein experiences with his monster project.   First, the wonder of scientific possibility, then the energy and enthusiasm to create a being, and finally the horror and revulsion—utter sadness—at what has resulted.  Dr. Frankenstein flees from his responsibilities to care for his creation.  Fernando seems remote in his ivory tower, living apart from his offspring and his wife.

Beekeeping and Men of Science (A pedantic sidebar)
It might be appropriate to add here that, though in 1940, when Fernando studied bees, the secret of bees’ directional communication through the waggle-dance on the honeycomb was still unknown.  However, in 1973, the time of distribution of Beehive, the famous zoologist, Karl Von Frisch (1886-1982), discoverer of the code of the secret bee-dance, a systematic communication of direction and distance with reference to polarized light, received the Nobel Prize for his zoological work.  Furthermore, a fact little known generally about beekeeping is that a century before Frisch’s discovery, honey harvesting from the frames meant the actual destruction of the colony of the hives plundered.  An American, L.L. Langstroth, invented the detachable and replaceable frames by allowing ample space for the bees to move about and for the honey to be extracted from the comb, thus allowing the workers to survive the plunder and produce afresh.  Before this time, to get honey from natural bees’ nests and from the typical domed hive, found as an emblem on heraldic shields and on the Mormon State insignia, meant the annihilation of the colony, queen-bee, drones and all.  Perhaps Fernando in his studies is thinking of the family’s commercial livelihood partly through honey production, for there seem to be no other animals to husband.  (He shouts down to Milagros asking whether there is any food in the house.)  Thus, he, like Von Frisch, was interested how the bees work as a colony and, like Langsroth, how he might aid through some discovery or by invention the greater efficiency of honey making and maintaining the growth of the colonies.

Colmena, the Spanish for “beehive,” is a word resounding with meanings of provision, of supply, of plenty.  At the tail end of a devastating war, in an abandoned, evacuated family estate, in a farming village, its fields effete, its workforce scattered in refuge or, worse, killed off, the question of future provisions and the industry, natural or man-devised, that can provide the goods, is one that an intelligent person would be asking.  What providence (future, foresight, or divine guidance) is there?  Where can one find the spirit of provision?  How do derelict humans, like the agitated, enclosed, (incarcerated?) bees, find direction to the new fields of plenty?

To Produce Honey
You might ask why I’m going into detail about such practices and the industry of beekeeping.  What one carries in mind when viewing a serious film adds to the understanding and enjoyment.  What one thinks about after viewing, stimulated to research such ideas, adds to one’s curiosity about how much the director may have intended.  I believe that[11] all art contains symbolic imagery, or metaphorical implications; nothing is presented in a film without careful deliberation.  This extension of great importance and meaning in the hive image may just be imaginative conjecture directed in me by the film, or my way of finding values in significant images.  Film can motivate one to inquire and learn.  Titles are chosen for explicit reasons.  Apiarist, apiologist, or honey farmer, Fernando does travel to some town, or to the train station, by horse-drawn wagon with his briefcase of studies of his glass hive creation.  This implied attempt of man the scientist to improve on nature’s work, especially with bees in an enclosed glass cavity, was likely of great significance in Erice’s thematic imagery.  However, I leave till later what that image signifies as I understand certain parallelisms.

Nature’s Storehouse
The beehive has traditionally signified industriousness and prolific generation.  Superficially, the social implications between class divisions of bee colonies have been employed since ancient literature as analogous to harmonious cooperation of human communities through division of labor.  Naturally, at the time of Beehive’s narrative, some Spanish communities have fallen into disorder and destruction through political warfare and some new civil order has to be devised by cooperative social integration.  The old mansion is a hive, decorated with hexagonal motifs and lit in honeyed tones to emphasize the analogy.  In the life of Hoyuelos in 1940 as we see its emptiness and barrenness, the ironic contrast of the beehive imagery does not need further comment.  It’s up to each viewer to sense it shallowly or deeply.  The tired censors, I imagine, hoped it would be of minor interest to most viewers.

Hellman Checks In
Another critic who adds his praise of Beehive to that of scores of commentators and academic scholars is Monte Hellman, director of cult films, quickly shot, low- budget, experimental movies (The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) shot side by side in Utah with a coterie of actors, notably Jack Nicholson).  When he was teaching film in University of Southern California’s School of Film, he chose Beehive as a model, having viewed it over twenty times, more than any other film.[12] He claims it is an example of cinema’s power to invade our dreams, to awaken our knowledge and fears.  Hellman asserts that Beehive is a paragon of film “completely without exposition, other than what would be revealed to an observer in life.”[13] And he concludes: “Consequently it fulfills Jean Cocteau’s definition of a work of art: it must hide its riches, to reveal them little by little over along period of time.”[14] The consensus of students, he mentions, about Teresa’s letter is that it is sent to a lover.  Evidence might be the disaffected relationship between Fernando and herself.  When she posts her letter, she stands on the train platform and looks at a Francoist soldier, gazing back unemotionally at her from his window seat in the carriage.  A friend with whom I watched the film recently felt she looked longingly back at the uniformed soldier.  Having watched the scene carefully several times, I now feel Teresa gazes at the soldier with a cold stare of anger, spite, and even hatred, evinced in her eyes as she beholds the enemy who sent her loved one, either a lover or a dear family member, into exile.  Such is the enigmatic nature of her mood and thought.

Hellman’s students also discussed the implications of a later scene, in which Teresa contemplates a letter and envelope, she builds a fire and burns the envelope, face up, in the flames, a dwelling shot that discloses the address: “Job Sassanedas, Cruz Roja International, Nice, Francia.”  On back and front, there is no return address; therefore this is a newly composed letter, which upon contemplation she chooses to destroy, perhaps so that her thoughts will not be discovered and in resignation at the futility of searching for her kin (or lover, as you might wish it).  The address detection is one of the advantages of freeze-frame DVD viewing.  However, by the static, long shot of the burning envelope, Erice obviously wished the moviescreen watcher to notice clearly that the letter was Teresa’s own, a newly penned letter, the intended recipient of which she now despairs of finding.

Nice, where Red Cross camps existed for escaped republicans, was a likely geographical location for Catalonians to find refuge.  However, by 1940, France was endangered by German occupation and the Spanish refugees of a couple of years prior had to escape and relocate once again.  Such are the complex considerations this viewer has made, and yet nothing is definitively certain on this account.  Resigned to hopelessness of connecting with the outside world, Teresa shows her first intimate gesture towards Fernando when she enters his study and cloaks his sleeping frame with his jacket.  Until this moment, they have not been imaged closely together in the same shot.  Something profound has taken place in her resolve.  Perhaps Teresa will now return from her isolated, existential melancholy and rejoin her immediate family.  Such a re-aggregation is necessary if she wishes to escape the grip of her sorrow at what she has left behind and lost.  She is letting go of her nostalgia.

Living in Limbo
At the core of the film–and the whole era of Franco’s totalitarian stranglehold on societal and individual evolution must have seemed a limbo for artists like Erice– is the pervasive mood of a liminal world.  The family is living a half-life in an in-between world, estranged from the land and community they knew before and doubtful of their place in the emerging new order.  Teresa and Fernando, living inside their minds (we hear more what they think in early scenes; what they say is comprised of very sparse dialog), are in a limbo of marital separation, without physical affections or recognition of the other’s being.  Except for ritual caretaking of the children, most of which the maid Milagros attends to, they do not seem connected to their children.  Yes, Fernando takes the children mushroom picking, but it seems more a lesson in fungi identification than an outing with Dad.  The minds are connecting, but no physical tenderness is expressed.  When Ana is confronted by Fernando at the field barn, where she has gone to find her “spirit,” she does not heed his command to come to him.  She runs off into wide-open nature for her lonely walkabout.  Nature and the spirit world are more attractive, more comfortable for her than the domain of the ponderous-footed man who lives upstairs lost in his scientific laboratory.  In a tender scene, in which Teresa is combing Ana’s hair, she answers the child’s question about what a spirit is with a tautological response about good and bad children, not realizing at all the depth of Ana’s inquiry.   Teresa lives in her mind and heart, unaware of the here and now.  Her queen- bee nature and nursing instincts diminished, she leaves the house only to post her letters to some other she longs for.  Her aspect is one of a disembodied being.   When Ana runs away, Teresa calls like a lone, Greek tragic figure from the mansion’s parapets.  She does not venture forth to seek her lost child.

Isabel has come through the separation from the past with a child’s resilience.  Having transcended infancy into the new stage of self-consciousness, she lives outwardly, curious to test nature, to assert her predominance, to find her place in the pecking order with her peers.  A friend who recently viewed the film found her a problem child, someone who needs to be reined in by parenting before she does real harm.  Newly grown into the stage where she knows a movie is illusion and the difference between play and reality, and, like many children her age, she delights in tricking her younger and more impressionable sister and proving her dominance.  She experiments with death, choking her cat, and plays with death’s affect on her sister.  Being more verbally astute about religious mysticism, she has no problem in persuading Ana’s confused mind about her acquaintance with the nature of a spirit and where one resides.  Isabel’s cruel make-believe gaming with Ana is quite dangerous, for Ana takes it seriously and Isabel continues to lure her little sister such that the play is never quite over.  This mixing of seriousness with the playfulness of a game puts both the playmaker and the playmate in an antagonistic, distrusting relationship.  Strangely and irrationally Ana’s continuance of the play-reality helps to detach her from the lifeless, torpid domain of her family and allows her to act, absurd as it may seem, as a model of the sane individual, showing the way towards unconditional acceptance of another fellow being.  If Erice’s theme was to illustrate how an ecological balance of nature and nurture might come about after catastrophic war, Ana’s actions, unconscious as she may be, lost in her inner world, bring meaning and purpose back into human relationships.  Ana is seeking connectedness, summoning the dislocated outer world.  Isabel–and her parents at this point–could never understand this, for, being realistically outer-directed, she’s becoming aware of the dawning age of social control.  This will eventually erase her playful nature, just as the moving shadows on the wall outside her window darken her thoughts so that she pulls the covers over her eyes to hide from monstrous imaginings.

Making the World Sane
Erice is posing the question: how does a person make the world sane?  Ana, acting upon her perceptions of the Frankenstein film–the injustice of the townspeople’s hunting and killing of the childlike monster–intends to set the world aright.  She has interiorized the problem, having the idea reinforced by her classroom exercise in building Don José into a fully organ-ized being.  Her part, in placing the eyes on the dummy’s head, emphasizes the element of perception, the senses through which she internalized the relations of the monster and the girl Marie.  Not driven by reason, nor heart alone, but by her total being–body and soul–she is determined to re-create the form of her spirit in order to practice nurture and touch, which engagement her creative imagination has understood as the elemental purpose much needed in her life and the hostile world she inhabits.  Just as the father of Marie in Frankenstein refuses his daughter’s request that he come and play, so Ana recognizes her parents have lost their inclination to play.  When Fernando commands her to come to him at the barn, she turns to escape, to seek a spirit, like that of Frankenstein’s monster, who was eager to take the child’s hand, sit with her and engage with her.  The picture of the guardian angel holding the hand of the child in the painting above Ana’s bed corresponds ironically with that of the Frankenstein imagery, in which the role of guardian is reversed.

Ana pays attention to her world, to the living nature of images and their relations, and they are corporealized; they build over time as her consciousness emerges out of her childish mentality.  Her intuitive purpose is to join in nature and to act in the making of a world in which people engage, counteracting the practices of separation, isolation and human elimination.  She has herself sensed vicariously the horror of her early years, the results of which are all about her in life.  Franco’s reign stamped out imaginative expression of a future goal of harmony with nature and togetherness.  Ana’s desire for engagement with otherness (or “outerness”) is expressed in her call “Soy Ana” (not “I am Ana (me llamo Ana), but “It’s me, Ana”).  It is not a request for individual identity, but rather a call to nature to include her in the world, to allow her into the wonder and mystery of greater life.

Accepting nature
One example, minor in the scheme of things, in the scene on her night quest for the spirit, she comes upon the toadstool with the greasy cap her father had warned her about.  Kneeling, she bends and rather than picking it, she goes counter to her father’s advice; she tenderly, caressingly touches its crown without fear.  That’s all.  Earlier in the field hunting mushrooms, Fernando had pointed out the poisonous toadstool, described its deadly effects, and then crushed it flat under his shoe.  Ana had looked carefully at that action and at the remains of the destroyed fungus.  Why destruction?  Isn’t the toadstool still a part of nature, just another fungus like the edible ones?  The duality of edible and toxic does not mean one should eliminate or crush the toadstool.  How is this different from the killing of innocent men, of an innocent monster, irrationally separating the good and bad, the left and the right?  Ana has the ecology correct: even the toadstool has its place in nature.  So when her imagined monster arrives that night to kneel beside her at the lake, he does not grab her; instead, he seems to reach forth to hold or embrace and she is not afraid.

Finally, the error of human relations is exemplified by Fernando’s experiment with the beehive.  He is playing with nature just as Dr. Frankenstein wanted to experiment with creating life.  The organization of the bee colony has evolved over millennia of time and its unity is very fragile, for disease, parasitic pestilence or herbicides could easily wipe out the species.  Fernando’s invention of a glass hive with “clockwork gears” could be the very meddling that would disturb the directional waggle-dance pattern and spoil the polarized light orientation that had probably evolved in the insects over many epochs of time.  Tampering with nature is not sound ecological practice.  Better to comfort one’s children, to play and hold them tenderly, to talk with them, and encourage their questions.  The dark world and its gray ash will sift down upon them soon enough.  In the final scene, undaunted by the grown-ups’ fears for her on her “walkabout,” a child’s positive ecology of the soul is reinforced by Ana’s opening of the upper-storey windows to the misty, blue night air and calling out, “Soy Ana.”  Hope persists.

David Gilmour (Gil4or)

October, 2009

[1] Chris Burkhalter in The Scarecrow Video Movie Guide (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2004), p. 370.


[2] “Spanish Lessons,” The Spirit of the Beehive, booklet of The Criterion Collection, #351, 2006.  This essay, for those who receive only the disks, has been posted online:  (18 September, 2006).

[3] Boris Karloff insisted on editing the scene out.  In the original version, as I view it, the naïve, childish monster tosses Marie into the water as a continuation of the flower game.  Having tossed away his flowers, he picks up the girl and playfully throws her into the lake.  Confused, he then rushes off.

[4] See, R. Gordon Wasson’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1968) for a dissertation on the magical powers of the fairy-tale mushroom.

[5] See, DVD Features (Disc 2), Footprints of a Spirit as explained by Erice himself.

[6] One doesn’t know this by viewing, but screenwriter Santos explains the origin of the “Freedom  Fighter’s” escape and arrival at the barn:  an experience from his childhood. (Footprints, Disc 2).

[7] Erice (Footprints, Disc 2) speaks of his homage to the Lumière Brothers.

[8] Translator, J.E. Crawford Fitch  (New York:  Dover, 1954), p 127-128.

[9] John Lee Anderson, “Lorca’s Bones,” The New Yorker (June 22, 2009), 44-48.  Anderson states:  because of the absence of public inquiry, “the silence of Spain about the Franco years,” “though the Spanish Civil War ended seventy years ago, victor and vanquished were never reconciled.” P. 45.

[10] Tragic Sense of Life. Unamuno takes up the strength of courage in despair in his final chapter, “Don Quixote in the Contemporary European Tragi-Comedy,” p.297-330.  Erice might be considered a Don Quixote, an awakener of sleeping souls.

[11] David Gilmour (not myself) has found success educating his son through films.  See The Film Club (New York: Twelve, 2008).

[12] In Scarecrow Movie Guide (see above), “Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive” p. 370-371.

[13] Ibid. p. 371.  This “realism” is not quite accurate, for when Ana is on her night search for the “spirit,” the POV changes to her inner vision.  One might say the viewer’s invasion of character’s thoughts is not wholly realistic or naturalistic.  Various points of view are employed.

[14] Ibid.

8 thoughts on “More than The Secret Life of Bees

  1. David,
    As always, you provide us with an analysis of a film that is scholarly, deep, and thought provoking. I have thought a lot about this film myself, but you gave me many new insights into aspects of the film I had not previously considered. I particularly liked your ideas about the silence of the unutterable.

    When I first viewed this film (on DVD about three years ago) I did not know anything about its background or history. But it was one of those films where within the first few scenes, I had a premonition that I was embarking on one of those peak film viewing experiences, experiencing a masterpiece. I was not disappointed on that first viewing, nor on any of the several subsequent viewings of it I have engaged in since.

    This is a film that should be viewed, studied, and reflected on by any serious cineaste, and your commentary provides an excellent launching point for doing that.

    1. It’s good to know others interested in films and social issues would like to join the blog. May I refer you to Ron Boothe who is our website caretaker. He is in charge of passwords and other information about The Tacoma Film Club blog: Thank you for commenting.–David

  2. Wonderful blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost
    on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?

    There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any tips? Many thanks!

    1. Thank you for your complimentary remarks and the thought that we can be of assistance to you as a writer. Of course, writing and practicing go together, doing as much expressing of your thoughts as possible whether in diary, journal, or through email. You can often find writers’ workshops at community colleges, even in the evening for those who carry daily jobs. It’s best to find out if the focus is fiction, creative writing, or non-fiction (e.g. essays). If you have a group who would be able to contribute to a blogsite, with a shared annual cost for service, I think WordPress is an ideal way to go. Our website master can be found at My name is David Gilmour and I post reviews from time to time as gil4or. –David

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