As the barren landscape for Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive/El Espiritu de la Colmena (1976) is investigated in the film’s opening shots, a subtle icon in front of a building of a small, Spanish village immediately reveals its connection to Francoist Spain. Five overlapped, vertically upright arrows with a bow across the middle that serve as a clear indication of Filangism (a conservative, pro-Franco ideology). They are planted on the side of a wall as the camera creeps further into the village as its inhabitants gather to see James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A young Ana is mystified and enchanted with the dynamic between the creature and a small girl who befriend and enlighten each other. Much like Mary Shelley’s critique of the repressive church and state during her time (mid 1800s in London), Erice evokes the same critique in Spirit of the Beehive which follows Ana and her family under Francoist Spain. In an isolated village, Ana embarks in a world of wonder after watching Frankenstein. Her father Fernando obsesses over the inner workings of his beehives while her mother, Teresa, writes letters to a mysterious lover. Ana’s older sister, Isabel, begins her own journey after the relationship between them inevitably changes. Fernando serves as a patriarchal force that replicates the repressiveness of conservative ideology on a micro scale in his relationship with his rebellious daughter, Ana, who befriends a guerilla and develops agency and knowledge within a fascist regime. Filangism and Francoism heavily draw from Catholicism which result in the harsh punishment upon those who threaten the state’s grip on control. Although the repressive patriarchal forces of the religious state dictate the manners in which power is concentrated, there are pockets of rebellion beyond the confining grips of repression, in which social outcasts challenge societal norms and the state through enlightenment, thereby disrupting order and invoking a fierce rebellious spirit.
Fernando, the patriarch and repressive force in Spirit of the Beehive that is representative of the fascist government, frequently describes a beehive, a complacent worker population whose existence is to serve the queen; his home is a microcosm of isolated Spanish life. Fernando not only serves as the patriarch of the household but hoards the resources of the small village in which he resides; he owns the most property and controls the economy (presumably) through the product of his bees. All of these elements necessitate an element of control both within the hive and his household with his wife and daughters. Most of the film is riddled with immense silence and isolating shots of the barren land to illustrate the force of the government and its power to silence dissenters. Fernando seldom speaks to his wife and only speaks to Ana and Isabel in order to pass down information that has been passed down from another patriarch. The repressive force of Francoist Spain is actualized towards the latter part of the film, after an injured guerilla jumps off a passing train and takes shelter in an abandoned farm house. Ana, who frequently visits the farmhouse, befriends him by providing him with warm clothes (her father’s coat) and food. Soon after, in the stillness of the night, the guerilla fighter is gunned down by a death squad. Once the body is recovered with Fernando’s belongings there is an interesting transition between the soldier and Fernando that stunningly captures Fernando as a Francoist figure. The camera pans down from the once illuminated screen of the source image to the soldier who lies dead and slowly transitions to Fernando, who is illuminated by the glow of the honeycomb window behind him while he enjoys supper with his family. In order to maintain control and crush the rebellious spirit growing within Ana, Fernando crushes even the faintest ounce of delineation. The two opposing symbols of the political spectrum are presented within this transition, the ultimate death of rebellion at the end of the civil war and the thriving Francoist Spain which dominates every aspect of life. The warm yellow glow of the honeycomb window that proceeds the feet of a nameless soldier shows power and control maintained in the hive, the productivity and complacency of the workers in a fascist state. Fernando also sits at the end of the table while his family eats in silence, only for the silence to be broken with the lullaby from his watch that he received back after the guerilla’s body was found. This symbol of time and a passive-aggressive gesture towards Ana indicates her limited days if she continues her rebellious behavior, as she too threatens the order of the hive. Yet, the transition begins with the screen and the soldier, the origin of Ana’s spark into consciousness. The guerilla’s position replicates that of the Creature in the film, just at the brink of a rebirth. This is a subtle foreshadowing for the Creature’s rebirth later in the film in which also replicates a scene from Frankenstein. After the guerilla’s death the commonalities between the plight of the Creature and Ana become more clear and begin to illustrate the perseverance of the rebellious and nurturing spirit.
The Creature and Ana display a spark of change within a repressive patriarchal force, their thirst for knowledge is not for power and control, but a sincere understanding of the world by their own means without the confines of a rigid society. The path towards enlightenment and self-discovery is nearly identical within the film and the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Both products of a heavily religious state and society, the similarities use metaphor to comment on the repressive forces within society and the forces from within who challenge it, especially from those who are othered. Although Ana is a young girl, by comparing her to her older sister Isabel, Ana’s fate is illustrated as Isabel begins to demonstrate rituals of vanity (using blood for lipstick) and eventually moving to another room. Since Ana delineates from the path towards a conservative idea of a woman, she begins to detach from her family. The Creature is also exiled and escapes the confines of Dr. Frankenstein in order to seek solitude and knowledge about the world. Shelley describes the Creature’s first venture into the forest from his point of view stating, “I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the trees…It moved slowly, but it enlightened my path, and again I went out in search of berries” (71). The radiant form is the moon that illuminates the path for him to not only find his way but nutrients to curb his hunger. The path is literally lit for him on the path of enlightenment in the forest, a place that is associated with chaos and evil has now been washed over with a guiding light of purity. This very scene is duplicated in Spirit of the Beehive when Ana leaves the confines of her home and ventures into the forest. The path she walks is illuminated by the white glow of the moon rather than the yellow glow of the honeycomb windows. The lit path also guides her in search of food, which in her case is a mysterious mushroom from which her father violently smashed earlier in the film. Both Ana and the Creature find enlightenment in the wilderness, a clear legacy of Romanticism by challenging the religious state via enlightenment in nature. It is only after this process that Ana and the Creature ultimately unite and recreate the original image that initiated her questioning.
The source image is reenacted to symbolize the rebellious spirit reincarnated and passed unto Ana in order to persevere within a repressive government and ultimately challenge her patriarchal father and state. In order for Ana to have reached this point, the Creature had to develop throughout the film analogously; first as a blank slate upon which to plaze organs and eyes upon, second as a guerilla, and third as a creature who manifests into physical form. Each point is a marker for Ana’s growing consciousness that ultimately peaks once she reaches a pond in the forest. Ana gazes into the pool of water only to be met with the reflection of the Creature instead of her own, instead of shock or horror she emotes content. Once she looks up, the Creature comes out of the darkness and sits in front of her, Erice then positions the camera to mirror the source image of the film of the Creature and a girl sitting before a lake. The only difference is the time of day; instead of the sun (which also emits a yellow glow) this moment is illuminated by the moonlight, a dramatic shift placing the two figures outside of the beehive and its confines. The white glow also shows indicates Ana’s innocence much like that of the Creature who also exhibits childlike behavior both in the film and in the novel (although he becomes a fully actualized person in the novel). The characteristics of Ana and the Creature are radically different from the rigid and repressive behavior of Fernando who obsesses over the inner working of the hive within his study and barely speaks a word only to mutter orders. Fernando, who finds Ana the next morning returns to the village while Ana remains alone in her room as Isabel has been moved to another. The final shots show Ana opening the honeycomb windows in order to bathe in the moonlight and drown in the sounds of the creatures of the night. By breaking open the windows and contrasting with the overbearing yellow glow of the honeycomb window that illuminates her family, Ana breaks away from the repressive forces that will attempt to dictate her life as the regime reigns.
Erice’s metaphors through visual film juxtaposing Frankenstein with a young girl in an isolated village illustrates a poetic vision into the life under Franco. The silence and stillness demonstrate how the Franco regime left Spaniards feeling isolated from a vibrant world, a world in which they were familiar with prior to the brutal end in the Civil War (1936-1939). The sympathetic angle Erice positions the guerilla reflects how the memories of the past will always bleed through into the future and how the memory of life before the war left people in a vulnerable state. Ana sheds light on how there are ways to combat the repressive forces and break out of the confines of the hive, even if on an ideological level.
Latest posts by La Virgen (see all)
- Undermining the Patriarchy and Fascism: Ana in THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE - January 25, 2019