In 1973, young Spanish filmmaker Víctor Erice created his debut film: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive). It is widely considered one of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema, an opinion I happen to share. The film has been widely influential, and its imprint can be seen in dozens of other films, among them Carlos Taboada’s Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies), Gabriele Salvatores’s Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared) and, perhaps most notably, Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). Aside from its masterful direction, the key to its success was its young star, little Ana Torrent, who had never acted before and was not from a family of actors.
The film operates on two levels: The first is a story of a little girl growing up and learning to face her fears, a classic coming-of-age story. The second is a political allegory, a veiled critique of the Franco regime which, unlike its Nazi and Fascist counterparts in Germany and Italy respectively, still had a grip on Spain at the time this was filmed.
The dominant party under Franco was the Falange, and we immediately get a sense of its presence when we see the Falange’s logo on the side of one of the buildings in the town of Hoyuelos, where the story is set. A truck has arrived in this sleepy Spanish village, a mobile cinema. For these rural children in 1940 Spain, a movie is something of a novelty. When a Spanish-dubbed version of the classic Universal picture Frankenstein is screened in the town hall, nearly the entire village—or at least its younger segment—shows up to watch it, including sisters Ana and Isabel (Ana Torrent and Isabel Tellería). At first they blend in with the rest of the children, like bees in a hive, but eventually we get a closeup of their rapt, apprehensive faces.
The relationship between Ana and Isabel is a more complicated one than it appears on the surface. Many have interpreted the two of them as the opposing factions in the Spanish Civil War that only just ended in the period in which the film is set, and so will we. Isabel, the older and more dominant sister, represents the nationalists under Franco, who won the war and now rules Spain, and Ana represents the leftists, who did not. There is still some fighting as the Francoists clean up the countryside, but basically the war is over.
Before the film itself plays, the film-goers watch a government-approved addendum that is clearly intended to be political propaganda, wherein democracy is compared to the monster: a frightening man-made creation that subverts the natural order of things.
While the children of Hoyuelos are being enthralled by Frankenstein, the girls’ father, a beekeeper named Fernando, is working with his bees. The beehive is a symbol that will appear throughout the film, most prominently in the form of the honeycombed windows of the manor house that Fernando and his family live in. Fernando’s beekeeping costume also makes him resemble a medieval monk, and thus a stand-in for God looking down on Spain from above: although he attends to it faithfully, he disapproves of it, criticizing it as tightly-controlled but essentially mindless and soulless.
Meanwhile, the children’s mother, Teresa, writes a letter to her absent lover, whom we may assume is a soldier of some kind. In her letter she explains how the war has torn the family apart emotionally. Indeed, the family is never seen together as a whole until somewhere near the end, when they are breakfasting. We see a recurrence of the beehive theme here, in the manor house’s windows, which we will see again and again. Teresa writes by the golden light streaming through one of these honeycombed windows.
When Teresa visits the train station to mail off her letter, she walks through the smoke and steam issuing from the train, echoing the smoke Fernando uses to calm his bees into submission. Smoke or steam is another oft recurring nod to the beehive in this film. And the train has long been a symbol of industry and progress, playing well into the ideology of the newly appointed authoritarian governments of Europe, who each utilized the unity and pride of workers as propaganda to bring them into the fold. Trains, of course, were also used to carry soldiers and prisoners of war to their destination. This train will be seen again. In the partial breakdown of society after the war, it is one of the few connections the isolated village has to the world outside.
As Fernando is reading the newspaper, the sound of the film in the tiny village floats into the house, distracting him, and he steps out onto the balcony to get a better listen. Here we see those yellow honeycombed windows again, only this time Fernando is on the other side of them. He is, in his own way, just another bee, another cog in the Francoist wheel.
Then we’re back to the theater again. This leads into the scene where Frankenstein’s monster encounters the little girl, Maria (Marilyn Harris), who offers him a flower. But the monster winds up killing the girl accidentally by tossing her into the water, believing she will float like the flower the girl threw into the water. This becomes the lynchpin scene for Ana, the beginning of her obsession with the monster.
Frankenstein’s monster is one of the most complex in literature. In the novel—a literary classic written by a 17-year-old Mary Shelley—the creature is a tortured being who can not only speak but has the soul of a poet and can wax eloquent about his own suffering. He wants only to find his place in the world and people who will care about him, and when his creator refuses to help him to that end, and his own searches reveal only people who fear and despise him because of his monstrous size and hideous appearance, it is only then that he becomes a murderer. By the end he has lost his faith in both humanity and himself. But the movie monster was somewhat different. Reduced to guttural grunts and growls, he is not the creature of great intelligence and sensitivity we meet in the novel. He is slow, both physically and mentally, although he means well and his intentions are often misunderstood. The best literary analogue is probably Lennie Small from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Ana is terrified and spellbound. As a little girl herself, this scene really hits home for her. Torrent’s large expressive eyes help to sell what she is feeling as she watches the scene play out. It should be noted that Ana Torrent was not given much preparation for this role and in fact was not even familiar with the script. Erice wanted the children to behave as real children, and he fed them—or at least Torrent—a line at a time. Thus, Ana’s confusion and terror in the film are often real. Today we would probably consider this exploitative, but few can deny the power of Torrent’s performance. Still, her experiences on the set of The Spirit of the Beehive were likely troubling to her father, who wanted to prevent her from acting after this film. Luckily for her this did not wind up being the case, but we shall discuss her other films another time.
Although the scene in Frankenstein where the monster tosses the girl into the water was actually shot, it was excised from early cuts of the film because it was considered too violent. It is rather tame by today’s standards, but at the time the censors thought it too frightening for audiences to see. This small edit actually becomes important in The Spirit of the Beehive, because it leads to Ana’s confusion about what really happened to Maria. First Ana sees Maria befriending the monster, and the next thing Ana knows, the girl is inexplicably dead. The older, more experienced Isabel, on the other hand, knows exactly what happened. Politically, you could say that Isabel has bought into the propaganda entirely. Ana is a different story. For her it is not initially clear what connection the monster has to the dead child, and in that sense there is still hope for Ana to see the monster in a more sympathetic light. But she is uncertain. Hence, her obsession. The monster will haunt Ana in a way it never can Isabel, who has already made up her mind about it. This is exacerbated by the fact that, although Isabel agrees to answer Ana’s question after Frankenstein is over, she never really does.
Later, when the girls are in bed, Ana asks again, but the jaded Isabel, who knows something about how movies are made, simply explains that it was all fake. Ana is, of course, unsatisfied with this answer because it does not address the issue that’s
troubling her. Indeed, Isabel only adds insult to injury by playing on Ana’s gullibility, telling her younger sister that the monster now resides in their own village. She adds that the monster is essentially a disembodied spirit who only comes out at night and can sometimes take corporeal form, which really enflames Ana’s imagination. Isabel even tells Ana how to summon the monster.
Fernando continues to wax philosophical about the bees, seeing only futility and soulless toil in their frenzied activity, ironically failing to see how he and his wife (and by extension, Francoist Spain) have become exactly like the bees. His wife (who is significantly younger than her husband), by contrast, does get a sense of it, even if she can’t quite identify it for what it is, as she points out in one of her letters to her lover. In that sense, husband and wife echo Isabel and Ana. Isabel, like her father, is a conformist at heart, whereas Ana yearns for something more, something she does not fully understand but sees represented in the form of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. She is the dreamer. We get a sense that Isabel will survive just fine under Franco, but we worry about Ana, who stands in for a future democratic Spain. She is open and questioning, and therefore vulnerable. At any rate, while Teresa finds her solace and distraction in writing letters, Fernando finds his in his work and in his routines like smoking cigarettes and taking his tea (both of which produce smoke of sorts, thereby tying back into the beehive symbolism).
In the Catholic girls’ school the sisters attend, they are faced with putting together their own sort of Frankenstein’s monster in the form of Don José, a puzzle of the human body where certain organs can be added and removed, used as a teaching tool by their instructor. In a deeply symbolic scene, Ana is asked by the teacher to place the final missing piece: the eyes. With her dreamer’s soul, Ana offers the much-needed vision that her Francoist peers lack. This will foreshadow a later event in the film, when Ana has an honest to goodness hallucinatory vision.
Later that day, on their way home from school, the girls encounter an abandoned building with a well near it, which Isabel tells Ana is the home of the monster. Note how Ana stands on the mound here while Isabel is in the trench. Isabel runs to the well and then goes into the building while Ana, too afraid to approach, watches her. When Isabel emerges, the girls run home again. Later Ana returns on her own, repeating the steps of her sister: looking in the well first (even going a step further by shouting and dropping a stone into it) and then entering the building.
Then, we see the children mushroom hunting with their father. Fernando explains to them that he always obeyed his grandfather (representing tradition), who instructed him on what to do if he encountered a mushroom he didn’t know: don’t pick it. The irony here is that, if no one had ever tried any mushrooms at all, they would never have discovered that some were good to eat. When they encounter a mushroom Fernando knows is poisonous, he tells his daughters that, although this particular mushroom is young and smells pleasant now, when it begins to rot its true nature will be revealed. Ana seems uncertain about this.
Look quickly for the honeycomb pattern in the seat of the horse-drawn carriage Fernando climbs into in the next scene.
The girls indulge in a little horseplay before school, jumping on their beds and pillow fighting (a scene somewhat echoed in the opening sequence of a later film, Du är inte klok, Madicken, which came out in 1979), and we hear Isabel repeat the universal refrain of children everywhere who are caught misbehaving: “She started it!” Then, Ana plays in the soapy water her father shaved in earlier that morning, much to both girls’ amusement. These scenes serve to remind the viewer that these are real fresh-and-blood children and not just walking, talking metaphors. Scenes such as these help ground the film.
I haven’t much to say about this next scene, other than that I found it a particularly touching one. Ana blows on the bees inside a wire mesh cage, perhaps attempting to agitate or stir them up, interrupting their usual pattern of behavior.
Next we see Isabel (whom, you’ll recall, represents the Francoists) displaying her tendency for cruelty when she throttles the family cat. She is rewarded for her actions with a painful scratch on her finger. Her own blood fascinates her, and she uses it to paint her lips darker red and admires herself in the mirror afterward, thus tying violence to sexuality. Violence and sex . . . we are firmly in the realm of adulthood here, and thus we are getting a glimpse of the woman Isabel will likely become.
The violence against the family pet leads Isabel to another idea, and here is where she turns her tendency for nastiness against her sister. Isabel fakes a violent attack against her person, pretending to be dead, which she knows Ana will interpret as an attack by Frankenstein’s monster. She even breaks a potted plant and leaves the balcony windows open for effect. The prank goes on far longer than it should, as Isabel continues to milk it for all its worth.
Finally, when Ana runs off to seek help and, not finding anyone, returns to the scene of the crime, she finds Isabel gone. But alas, someone sneaks up behind her and grabs her, frightening Ana near out of her wits. It is of course Isabel, dressed in a heavy coat and men’s gloves. On one level, you have to admire Isabel—she is an artist of sorts, and this was her pièce de résistance. Ana, who is already haunted by the idea of Frankenstein’s monster, will likely never forget this prank at her expense. It’s no wonder she takes it to heart then.
Isabel, lit by the sun as it streams through the honeycombed windows, gloats over her accomplishment. She looks utterly devious here. I must say too that, while Ana Torrent certainly commands the screen, Isabel Tellería holds her own with Ana well enough. Isabel is the perfect compliment to Ana’s generous and trusting nature, and there is just something inherently playful and puckish (and perhaps a tad sinister) about Tellería’s face.
This incident divides Ana and her sister, leaving Ana without anyone she can really trust and look up to. Her parents love her, but they are emotionally distant, preoccupied with their own lives. Isabel was Ana’s only real friend and confidante, but that trust is likely forever shattered now. When Ana sees Isabel playing with other neighborhood girls afterward, running and jumping through the fire, she does not feel compelled to join in, merely to watch from afar. One thing Ana Torrent has said about this scene is that she was awed by Isabel leaping through the fire, and that, while they were only a year apart in age, she always felt like her costar was much older than she. These are the magnifications and exaggerations of childhood, when everything is fresh and new and slightly overwhelming. It serves as a reminder that we should never underestimate a young child’s tendency to see themselves as small and inadequate in the face of a huge world ruled by much bigger people.
Later that evening, Ana sneaks out of the house by herself, not bothering to wake Isabel, her former partner-in-crime. She finds the courtyard and surrounding woods spooky and foreign. Ana’s loneliness and sense of betrayal are almost palpable here. When she returns to her bed the next morning, waking Isabel, and her sister asks where she’s been, Ana refuses to answer.
When Ana finds a wounded resistance fighter (arrived by train) hiding out in the abandoned building she and Isabel like to play in, she of course invests him with her own mythology. This is where the spirit of the monster is said to lurk, so this must be a physical manifestation of the monster. She offers him an apple, mimicking the scene in Frankenstein when Maria gives the monster a flower. She continues to bring him clothing and food (including, notably, a jar of honey) and to help him in small ways like tying the shoe on his wounded foot. In return, he entertains her with magic tricks. These little acts of kindness by Ana help to restore some of her faith in mankind. Of course, it is short-lived, as the fighter is caught and killed, and Fernando soon realizes what has been happening when his coat is found on the corpse. Torrent says she was particularly moved by this scene when she first saw the film herself, and felt quite proud of tying the soldier’s shoe!
Ana returns to the building and finds the fighter missing, with copious amounts of his blood left behind. When her father confronts her here, she runs away into the woods. The death of her new friend feels like the ultimate betrayal to Ana, and she cannot bear it. As luck would have it, she soon encounters one of the poisonous mushrooms her father warned her against picking. It is unclear here whether she attempts suicide by consuming some of the poisonous mushroom her father told her to avoid, or whether the poisoning is accidental, but whatever the case, she begins to hallucinate, seeing the monster’s face in her own reflection in the nearby river. Meanwhile, her mother burns a letter she intended to send to her absent lover, and we soon realize that her lover and the resistance fighter were the same person. Now that he’s dead, it makes no sense to continue sending the letters.
A little later she has a face-to-face encounter with the monster, shivering in fright at the prospect of a repeat of the scene in Frankenstein. In this case, because of the mushroom poisoning, the monster may very well represent the prospect of death here. Ana passes out from fright from the encounter. Torrent claims this scene had to be filmed numerous times because whenever the monster appeared, she would run away in tears, even though she was aware that it was a man in a costume. Fear can sometimes overrule what we know to be true, and that probably goes double for small children. After all, this was her first experience with film—she had no way to be certain if it was an entirely safe experience or if Erice (who was coaching her through the script) was telling the complete truth.
A posse of townspeople, including her father, who have been searching for her all night find her sleeping near the wall of a demolished structure. She continues to hallucinate even at home, but a doctor assures her mother that she will get over it. His words are not terribly reassuring to Teresa, or to the viewer, for, although the hallucinations will surely end, the emotional scars are likely to persist for the rest of her life.
Later Isabel slips into the bedroom where Ana is resting. The older girl seems to be genuinely remorseful for her actions which led to this state of events. This is reinforced when she sees shadows moving on the wall and covers her head, offering her a chance to empathize with Ana. It also contrasts with what happens with Ana at the end.
The honeycombed windows look quite different in the moonlight. Seeing something from a different perspective can change one’s interpretation of it. Ana has undergone a profound transformation, a revelation brought on by her psychedelic experience. In the final shot of the film, Ana literally and metaphorically turns her back on the night—she no longer fears what she doesn’t understand, which means she might well become an active voice for change in the future, whereas Isabel, even though she should know better, is still frightened by shadows moving on the wall.