Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Essential Review: Spirit of the Beehive - Justyn Dillingham

When the Loft's formidably knowledgeable Jeff Yanc introduced the first showing of Victor Erice's 1973 classic "Spirit of the Beehive" on Sunday, he noted that the rather better-known 2007 film "Pan's Labyrinth" had, to say the least, "borrowed" a lot from this Spanish classic. But while the two films share a number of elements—a setting, fantasy erupting into the world of a small child, an important plot point revolving around a watch—it's hard to imagine two films more different in tone. Whereas "Pan's Labyrinth" is a violent and disturbing film that troublingly blends history with fantasy—I walked out of it at the end feeling like I'd been bludgeoned with beer bottles—"Spirit of the Beehive" is so quiet and seemingly realistic a film that it sometimes feels more like a documentary, with its long, gorgeous shots of the Spanish countryside and carefully detailed scenes of ordinary people going about their business. You walk out of it thinking about what you've just seen, and what it all meant.

At the beginning of the film, two little girls living in a small, rural Spanish village go to see a rare screening of the 1931 "Frankenstein." Ana, the younger sister (Ana Torrent), is fascinated by Boris Karloff's monster and wonders "why they killed him" at the end of the movie. Her slightly older sister, Isabel (Isabel Telleria), tells her that movies aren't real -- but that the monster himself is, and that he's a "spirit" who lives in a nearby barn. So Ana sets out to find him, but what she eventually finds is very different. This story blends quietly with other stories involving the girls' parents. The father, a beekeeper, spends his days absorbed in his hobby; the mother spends her days writing letters to a lover in France. Neither of them ever know that their young daughter is struggling to understand death, a concept that has never occurred to her before. Ana, of course, doesn't realize this; she thinks she's looking for the monster. Instead of overwhelming the film, the suggestion of fantasy expands and deepens its vision; the filmmaker seems to be suggesting that there is something inherently mystical and incomprehensible about life, no less than death.

Erice focuses his camera on the sort of things other directors quickly cut away from. He seems to be genuinely trying to understand the world the way a child sees it. In one remarkable scene, the father takes his girls mushroom-hunting. "If you're not sure a mushroom's good, don't pick it," he tells them. "Because if it's bad, and you eat it, it's your last mushroom and your last everything too." He crushes the mushroom under his foot. We do not see Ana's reaction to this, but we can feel it -- we can sense her horror and bewilderment. In the age of video games and Twitter, it's all too easy to forget that children live in a different world than the rest of us, one in which adult assumptions and ideas play no role. Movies do not have the same impact on children that they do on adults, and something that an adult takes for granted can bother or bewilder a child for days.

Ana's experience has a powerful context; the film takes place in the years following the Spanish Civil War, that grim rehearsal for World War II (One-line recap: after democratic Spain's government was overthrown in a coup, a motley crew of rough-hewn anarchists, democratic socialists, volunteers and Stalin-backed communists fought against General Francisco Franco's Nazi-backed right-wing fascists, and lost). The war haunted artists and intellectuals for decades, inspiring Picasso's grim mural "Guernica," Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and George Orwell's classic piece of reportage "Homage to Catalonia." By the 1970s, our cultural memory of it (at least in America) seemed to have dwindled to a running joke on "Saturday Night Live" ("In other news, General Francisco Franco is still dead..."). But "Spirit of the Beehive" doesn't require any prior knowledge at all; it works both as a unique study of the lives of ordinary people at a certain time and place, and as a universal examination of what the world looks like to a small child. That's more than enough reason to see it.

"Spirit of the Beehive" is playing Tuesday at 7 p.m. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.

-- Justyn Dillingham is a 2009 graduate of the University of Arizona.

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