When one talks about old foreign films, they seem more pretentious than usual. That’s because they are touting the ideas of another culture by referring to a film most people wouldn’t see either because they are not what they’re used to or they don’t want to read subtitles (I happen to find the latter more often than the former). However, it should also be noted that these old foreign films are often watched by other great filmmakers that we all know and enjoy (Scorcese was heavily influenced by Felinni’s neo-realist period, Speilberg’s favorite film is Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”, “Belle de Jour” has influenced many filmmakers who want to make a drama about prostitution and/or sadomasochism) and serve as influences for what we commonly see. And while many today are familiar with Guillermo del Toro’s magnum opus “Pan’s Labyrinth”, it would not exist without the film that del Toro has called his favorite film and biggest influence: “The Spirit of the Beehive”.
If one was to do a double feature of both “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Spirit of the Beehive”, one would actually be surprised by how similar they are. Both take place in Francoist Spain after the Spanish Civil War, both speak against fascism, both are about young girls, both have broken families, and both have the girls attempting to escape into a fantasy world. The differences are in approach: del Toro, who was obsessed with fantasy (and sci-fi, if his handling of “Pacific Rim” wasn’t a dead giveaway on that), plays up the fantasy element to create a true escape for it’s heroine. “The Spirit of the Beehive” is more realist, crushingly so, in fact. The fantasy that our heroine, Ana, becomes engrossed with is the 1931 horror film “Frankenstein”. And without fantasy in the film, there is no way that can actually be realized.
Ana and her sister, Isabel, go and see “Frankenstein” when a movie truck goes into their village for a screening. Ana is not afraid of the film, but is interested by one scene in particular: the scene with Maria. Isabel tells her that neither the girl or the monster is dead because it was a movie and because she saw the monster as a spirit in an abandoned well house. Their mother is sending letters to a lover. Their father spends all his time writing about bees and his hobby of bee-keeping.
It’s important to note that the family never share a shot altogether. At least one family member isn’t there in every shot. Even when they eat together, we don’t even get a shot of the table. Everyone gets their own shot. The director, Victor Erice, did this for the same reason that the father’s passion is bee-keeping and Ana is fascinated by a monster: Symbolism. While the regime wasn’t as strong as in the 1940s, criticism of Francoist Spain was still outlawed. The only way to get that criticism across was to literally outsmart them: the film feels nostalgic and the ending makes it seem like a cautionary tale, but the presentation and collections of images with words spoken over them tell something else.
This is most evident when Ana finds the soldiers, wounded and hiding. She sees him as her own Frankenstein’s monster: a silent giant who needs to understand and be understood. She’s heartbroken to find out that he died, partially because she didn’t know about the conflict (the soldier was a rebel, who was killed by the military). To those not looking at symbols, it would appear as a cautionary tale about housing fugitives. To everyone else, it condemns the military for killing a silent (he has no dialogue) friend of a child. Even without the talk of bees, who follow their queen blindly and repeat their actions in patterns, this is the condemnation of fascist Spain.
The film’s ending is the only logical conclusion that the film could approach. Ana has a dream, in which is Maria and Frankenstein’s monster approaches her. She withdraws from her family and calls out to the spirit of the monster. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, the monster is the girl’s savior. Unlike the newer film, though, Ana savior is only in her mind, just like the freedom the Spanish had after the Spanish Civil War.
Directed by Victor Erice
Fernando Fernán Gómez, Teresa Gimpera, Ana Torrent, Isabel Tellería